Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Wow, I'm Bilingual Too!

You know those moments when you just kind of realize something AGAIN? It is all there in your mind already. It is in your consciousness and in your thoughts, but you read something or hear something or think about something and say, "Wow, I forgot about that!" And your day changes just a bit or maybe even quite profoundly. Do you have those times as well?

The other day I was reading a simply FABULOUS contribution which Fran├žois Grosjean had submitted for a future issue of Multilingual Living Magazine (sorry, MLM readers, you will have to wait until the May-June issue to read it) and was reminded again that I am bilingual as well. This might be obvious from an outsider: "You speak German with your children and your husband and with other German speakers, you lived in Germany for two years. Uh, what more do you need to remind you that you are bilingual?"

Well, this is the catch for me: since language learning is part of a long lifetime continuum, when do we finally say, "Yes, I am bilingual!" vs "I am learning a second language."? When does that movement take place where we step from one state of being (language learner) to another state of existence (bilingual speaker)?

Does it partially depend on personality? I am always expecting more of myself and resist ever making a final statement about my mastering anything (there is always so more to learn!). Does this mean I will never really ever say the words, "I am bilingual" since I will never feel that I have mastered the language well enough to have earned that "status"?

And since I know there is a physiological and emotional difference between having learned a language as part of growing up as a child vs learning it later in life, am I truly a bilingual or simply a person who can speak more than one language (with the assumption that bilingual is reserved for having grown up with two languages)? Is this what holds me back from making what seems to be such a bold statement?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that saying, "I am bilingual" is giving myself a label vs being labeled from an outside source. For example, I work as a Sr. Software QA Engineer, the title that was given to me for the work I do. I didn't even think about this title and ask myself if it fit or not or if I really felt like a Sr. Software QA Engineer. However, my skills and my tasks match what were defined by the company as what a Sr. Software QA Engineer does, so I don't need to analyze anything. Yet, if you were to meet me at a party and were to ask me what I do, I wouldn't start with my job title. Instead I would engage in a more detailed discussion about the products I work on (text messaging for cell phones in different languages) and use many descriptive words and hands-on examples. And I do the same when someone asks if I speak German. My answer is usually a qualified, "Yes, I speak German. In fact, we speak German at home together even though I am not a native speaker. I still make many mistakes, especially with those darn German articles, but I get by." Get by!? Arghhh. How can I raise my children in German if my German is just passable for basic conversation? Am I not giving people the wrong impression? Shouldn't I hold my head up high and say, "Yes, I am bilingual in English and German!"?

But I just can't. It sounds too confident, too bold and oh so final!

Is it modesty that makes me say that? No, I don't think so. Indeed, I am a very modest person but I think is has more to do with the expectations I set for myself. I feel I haven't reached a point where I FEEL like a bilingual. Will I ever reach that point?

Knowing me, I doubt it.

So, despite the fact that my entry is titled, "Wow, I'm Bilingual Too!" you won't find me using that term to describe myself very often. But you might find me in front of the mirror practicing: "Hi, nice to meet you. My name is Corey. Why yes, I am a bilingual, how ever did you guess?"


Juliet said...

Thank you! You perfectly summed up exactly how I feel about my proficiency in Chinese. Good to know I am not alone in feeling this way. I wonder if we will ever be comfortable stating that we are bilingual.

Corey said...

Tell me about it! Crazy stuff this learning a new language and then using it all of the time.

Alice in Austria said...

You know I think the problem is the way "bilingual" is commonly (and erroneously) defined: namely mastering two languages perfectly, or speaking two languages on the native-speaker level. It makes bilingualism a totally elitist club that only includes those who speak TWO languages PERFECTLY. When, in fact, this couldn't be further from the truth! This is a complete and utter MYTH (as Grosjean points out in the article - which I've had to privilege to read already as the editor) ;)

The problem that I have is as follows: if I am bilingual, what is my native language?!? What is my mother tongue? In the true sense of the word it is German, but since I feel more comfortable speaking English ... ?!? When an ad calls for native English speakers, do I, as a bilingual, qualify?

Sarah said...

I see a distinction between fluency and bilingualism. While I'm not fluent in French--can't always understand movies, have to read novels more slowly than I like to, don't always express myself with the nuances and detail I use in English--I still would tell people "Yes, I speak English and French." I do think of myself as bilingual, but not native-like in French. Yet I managed to live in France for a year and a half and do all that that requires--work a job, rent an apartment, deal with paperwork and bureaucracy, travel, make friends, have intense conversations. I wish I could speak and understand like a native--but I also recognize my limits as someone who didn't start the language as a teen, never had a native speaker teacher until grad school, married a fellow American who doesn't speak French. I have made my expectations for myself more reasonable (I have smaller goals and projects now) instead of wringing my hands and wishing I was fluent. But yes, I'm bilingual and proud!

Corey said...

Alice and Sarah: Thank you for adding that additional element of "native speaker." It is so true that often people seem to assume that if I use the word "bilingual" then I mean fluent or native speaker. I forgot how much that influences what we say as well!

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