True Bilingualism

Growing up in a monolingual English household, I was always incredibly impressed with my bilingual friends, those who would switch into one language with their parents and back to English for their friends. I’d hear Spanish, Vietnamese, Khmer, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and plenty more– and these amazingly talented multilingual friends never seemed to think about it as anything. They could just do that? Wow. But I observed other things, like conversations where the parent would speak in their native language, and my friend would understand what was being said but respond in English, or some mix of the two languages. Because the reality is that maintaining bilingualism is hard! For most bilingual people, it’s very likely that they use the languages in different contexts, that they have differing levels of education and different skill-sets, and certain concepts are always simpler to express in one language over the other.

The New York Times Magazine published a nice little piece about bilingualism last month, talking about how speaking two or more languages is a skill that makes us better problem solvers, and perhaps smarter in general. But defining bilingualism can get a little difficult, and indeed, the study differentiated among people with high and low levels of it. When I first started learning Spanish, I assumed that anyone who spoke Spanish, including my aforementioned bilingual friends, spoke it more or less the same way, and well. I wasn’t yet able to differentiate between the Spanish of my friends versus that of their parents, for instance; but oftentimes, there’s a remarkable difference.

I’m talking about people who are fluent in both languages, but their fluency in the lesser-used or lesser-educated language is not the same as a monolingual’s. It’s not wrong, or bad, even, but there are more Anglicisms, more hesitations, and quick “pardon me for my Spanish” notes, among those who grew up speaking it. I suppose I’m suggesting that yes, multilingualism is absolutely possible, and some people are just better at maintaining fluency than others, but for second-generation young bilinguals in America, for whom English is often everywhere, it tends to dominate.

To me, this suggests an absolute need for better bilingual education resources in America; I’ve talked to so many people who wish they had a better command of their heritage tongue or could read and write it well. And it surely wouldn’t hurt students coming from English-only households to gain another language early on in life. What a smart society we would have!

Anyway, I know that language learning has changed the way I think, and occasionally the way I speak English, and that I shouldn’t be discouraged in moments where I just can’t find the word I’m looking for, because many fluent bilingual speakers experience the same thing.

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