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Saturday, 20 October 2012

Who can be bi-or multilingual?

Until recently, I would never have thought of calling myself “bilingual”, or even “multilingual”. In Europe, it is widely thought that only those who can speak the two (or more) languages on the same level of proficiency can call themselves bi-or multilingual. So even though I spoke German on a much higher level than other people I knew, I still didn’t consider myself bilingual because I felt my German didn’t match my Polish. I would half-jokingly refer to myself as one-and-a half-lingual to try to explain my level of German, but I never felt I was truly bilingual.

When I started learning English, I would never consider calling myself “trilingual” because my English was far behind both my Polish and German. After I added French and later Dutch to this mix, I would say that I speak 3 and a 2 halves of 2 languages. I wanted to show that yes, I do speak 5 languages, but I don’t speak all of them equally well.

But this changed when I had children and started reading into bi-and multilingualism. And it struck me that the word: “bilingual” just refers to someone who speaks 2 languages. If they can speak more than “just” 2 languages, they are called multilingual. Do you notice something? Nothing is said about the level these languages are spoken. In fact, all scientific literature states how rare balanced bilinguals are and that they are the exception rather than the norm.

So I started to call myself first bilingual (referring to my knowledge of Polish and German), and then realized that I speak more languages than that and now I can call myself multilingual. After all, why not? I speak Polish as my mother tongue, have been learning German since the age three and a half, and later added English, French and Dutch. That’s five languages. That’s already an accomplishment.

The same applies to you! It doesn’t matter if you feel that your language skills are not enough. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the language like a native speaker. It doesn’t matter that you can only communicate in a language on a very basic level- you are still bi-or multilingual.

Your goal can depend on many things: with whom and about what will you use this language? For some people it will be enough to be able to make their daily grocery shopping in the new language. Then others will need a high level of language to produce texts, articles or even books. But they are all multilingual. Even though there are differences between early bilingualism and later bilingualism, research shows that the mere fact of learning a language is already extremely beneficial, and even if somebody learns a language at a later stage, they might be able to achieve a be a highly proficient speaker, given the right amount of time and resources.

No, this is not to say that we should just decide to stop working on the languages we know. This is more to say that while we always can do better in our language development, by learning a language we have already come a long way. 

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  1. I would never have thought if myself as bilingual; I felt much the same as you. I speak Dutch probably fluently, but always assumed bilingual meant as if I had two native languages. This is great, I'm going to start calling myself bilingual from now on! Btw, your English is pretty impressive. I can't imagine how good your German is if it's better than this!

    1. Hello, MissNeriss, nice to see you here! Yes, this is my point exactly- if you speak two languages, you can by any means call yourself bilingual- if you speak more, you're multilingual. How cool is that? As for my English, my mother is a balanced bilingual in Polish and English (2 mother tongues), and we spoke English sometimes. And now I feel while my English is getting better, because I get to speak it a lot and on a very high level, my German got stuck and might be deteriorating- my husband is the only one with whom I use it on a daily basis. So, yes, it depends- I now feel that I wouldn't be able to write my MA thesis in German like I did 2 years ago...
      Another things that society still thinks that bilingualism is when you speak both languages on a native speaker level, and this just doesn't do anybody justice.


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