How does being bilingual affect you?

What does it mean to be bilingual?

If you are fluent in two languages, you can consider yourself bilingual. At a time when people are globally networked with one another, there are actually many people who speak several languages. But why is there any debate about what bilingualism means? In this blog post we talk about the topics of native speakers, language skills and "translanguage".

What is the definition of bilingualism or bilingualism?

First, let's take the word apart. The prefix “bi” means two, and lingua is the Latin word for tongue or language. So someone who is bilingual can speak two languages. However, the explanation from the dictionary shows a subtle addition.

Bilingual: speak two languages ​​fluently.

The difference lies in the ability to speak fluently. Because how well do I have to be able to speak a language to be able to call myself bilingual?

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How do you become bilingual?

As a native speaker, you are naturally fluent in your language. But it is a common misconception that you have to learn your second language (and other languages) in childhood. Studies of people's learning behavior show that it is easier in childhood, but that you can also become bilingual later in life, even as an adult.

Different factors can promote bilingualism, e.g. migration or growing up in a multilingual household. But of course you can also learn a second language at school or on your own.

Bilingualism exists all over the world, in all ages and in every social class. For example, in the United States there are 50 million people who speak two languages. Bilingualism during childhood is widespread in India and in many European countries, as children there learn at least one other language in school.

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Is bilingualism a question of ability?

There is a belief that true bilingualism can only be achieved if you have an equal command of both languages. The ideal bilingual person also has in-depth knowledge of culture, history and society, understands the different dialects and knows when to use them in order to be able to speak like a native speaker.

This condition of absolute ability contradicts our real view of bilingual people. In his work on bilingualism, Professor Emeritus François Grosjean noted that bilingual people can master their two languages ​​as much as they need them. It is common for one of the two languages ​​to be dominant. The ability to write and read in both languages ​​does not have to be present.

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Bilingualism as translanguage

Translanguage means that bilingual people combine their two languages ​​and thus virtually invent a new way of expressing themselves. No, that is not a sign of a lack of language understanding, on the contrary - it shows much more how great the language understanding is and how closely these two languages ​​are linked.

However, expressions like “Denglisch” (German-English) or “Spanglish” (Spanish-English) have a negative connotation in the sense that they are seen as a simple mixture of two languages. The opposite is the case: bilingual people are neither lazy nor stupid when they combine two languages. They borrow expressions and switch back and forth in their repertoire, thus expanding their possibilities of expressing themselves linguistically. In a conversation with someone who only speaks one language, you are of course able to stick to that language only.

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The advantages of being bilingual

Another myth is that bilingual children take longer or have more trouble learning a language in school when they speak another language at home. In fact, bilingualism brings not only learning, but also social and economic benefits. Bilingualism increases neural connectivity, improves analytical skills, problem-solving skills and of course the ability to learn a new language.

Multilingual people often show a great ability to identify with other people or cultures or to empathize with them. The expanded access to culture, learning materials and opportunities brings many other advantages.

If you are bilingual and continue to practice one of your languages, you expand your knowledge and your already very complex linguistic practice. Don't be discouraged by people who have impossibly high demands on bilingualism!