The Many Faces of Bilingualism: Busting the Myth of the 'Perfect' Bilingual

22/05/2015 10:45 BST | Updated 21/05/2016 10:59 BST

The blog I posted a few days ago on bilingualism generated some lively debate - not only on Twitter, but also around the Languages staff kitchen table. In most cases, my friends and colleagues wanted to know whether their second-language skills constituted bilingualism. Naturally, being an academic, I had to pursue these questions by conducting some preliminary research and seeking some good, reliable sources on the subject. These were kindly provided to me by Dawn Marley, my bilingual colleague (English/French) who has worked on this matter for some time. Here are some of the answers I have gleaned from my research, which I dedicate to my dear (and definitely bilingual) colleague Milda Balse.

Question 1: Do you have to speak both languages perfectly to classify as 'bilingual'?

Answer: No.

There is a widespread myth that, to be bilingual, you have to master both languages 'perfectly'. Scholars have contributed to the propagation of this myth. Leonard Bloomfield, in 1935, asserted that in cases where 'perfect foreign-language learning is not accompanied by loss of the native language, it results in bilingualism, native-like control of two languages'.

If you think about it, 'perfect foreign-language' acquisition is a strange, deceptive notion. Indeed, do you know anyone who speaks - and writes and reads and understands - just one language perfectly? What does 'perfectly' refer to? A native accent (whatever that might be), an immaculate grasp of grammar, or a dictionary-like knowledge of vocabulary?

I agree with François Grosjean, who (among many others) insists on the relativity of bilingualism. Bilinguals, he explains, 'know their languages to the level that they need them' He insists on the diversity of bilinguals: 'some are dominant in one language, others do not know how to read and write in one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a very small minority have equal and perfect fluency in their languages.' I would still quibble over the notion of 'perfect fluency', but this notion of a spectrum seems to be the most helpful way to approach any definition or characterization of bilingualism.


Question 2: Do you have to be brought up in two languages as a young child to be bilingual?

Answer: No.

Obviously being brought up in two languages is one way - and indeed a great way - of attaining bilingualism. I was lucky enough to be brought up in France by British parents, and was thus given the gift of bilingualism from a young age. But I can also think of many friends, colleagues and acquaintances who attained bilingualism in later years, whether from studying foreign languages to a very high level, from living and working in a foreign country, or from falling in love with - for want of a better word - a foreigner. But because of the aforementioned myth that ties the notion of bilingualism to an abstract, impossible concept of linguistic perfection, many of these people to not consider themselves to be bilingual.

I'll give you an example. I have a French guest staying with me at the moment who for the second time is working in the UK for a prolonged period of time. She insists that she is not bilingual - presumably because she learnt English in later years and doesn't speak it 'perfectly'. Yet she works effectively in a high-level marketing job in Guildford, converses regularly with me about matters ranging from (French and British) TV series to (French and British) politics - and, to add to the picture, talks to her Brazilian husband in Portuguese on Skype. According to François Grosjean's characterization of bilinguals, who 'know their languages to the level that they need them', she is most definitely bilingual, if not trilingual.

Question 3. Does proficiency in dead languages classify as bilingualism?

Answer: Yes!

When Prof Diane Watt (specialist in medieval literature) asked me a version of this question, I thought she was being facetious. But now I have read my Hugo Baetens Beardsmore, I am happy to be able to answer this question in the affirmative. Bilingualism covers such a multiplicity of different functionalities that it encompasses both productive bilingualism (the ability not only to understand, but also to speak and perhaps write in, a second language) and receptive bilingualism (the ability to understand a second language, in either its written or spoken form, but not necessarily to speak or write it). (Beardsmore 1986).

So yes, Diane, it does count. You are in fact, according to Beardmore's typology (1985), a type 3 receptive bilingual, exemplified by 'the classic scholar who only has the occasion to read and write a dead language' (1986, pg. 19).

So, to come back to the point I was making in my last blog, there are more bilinguals out there than you think. You might in fact be one without realising. And if you're not, it is certainly not too late to become one.