Friday, July 27, 2007

The Meaning of Bilingual

There is one thing I don't understand. Doesn't the term "bilingual" mean speaking two languages? "Bi" as in two or twice (which can be traced back through Latin and Ancient Greek roots) plus "lingua" meaning tongue, speech or language. You put the two together and you have someone who speaks two languages -- ANY two languages!

So, when did bilingual come to mean someone who doesn't speak the community language? When did our societies start to use the terms as a pejorative term? In the United States, it has often been used to mean "Spanish-speaker" (or whichever culture a person wishes to degrade). Which, in itself is completely contradictory... if someone lives in the United States and only speaks Spanish, then that person is monolingual, not bilingual.

Very strange how such terms come to mean something different over time.

Perhaps the word bilingual developed its convoluted meaning through its association with the word "education" as in "bilingual education"? Did people start to associate bilingual education to mean programs for kids who don't speak English and then slowly but surely the word bilingual came to mean people who don't speak English? Very ironic, really.

Very often someone will contact me at the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and ask why our website isn't in Spanish. The assumption is that the word Bilingual in our network's name means we support Spanish-speakers only. It took quite a few inquiries before I understood what the confusion was and then started realizing the associations that are made with the word bilingual.

I'm not saying that everyone associates the word bilingual with this incorrect definition. It is more a slow, eroding process whereby a word slowly changes its meaning purely through association -- through its association with finger pointing, scowled faces and accusations.

The same can be said for the term "multicultural" in the United States. For some reason it has come to mean "multiracial." A few months back a program came on TV discussing local schools and how they can meet the needs of their multicultural students. What the discussion was focused on was race. Not that we shouldn't be very much concerned with the role of race in our schools! But let's use terminology that really fits the description. Perhaps the word race was purposely avoided due to America's debilitating past with respect to race and humanity and was replaced with culture... something which is less precise, less clear, less assumed.

I always find it amazing that we can so easily start slipping into using words and associating meanings to words without even really knowing it, without being completely aware of what is happening. Bit by bit the words take on a new shape and we start using them in ways that mesh with the definitions that the rest of society has placed on them.

In the end words are around so that we can share meaning. Yes, who needs different languages to create linguistic confusion! Monolingual American English speakers, even when they are using simple words such as bilingual and multicultural, can cause great misunderstandings and confusions.

1 comment:

Johan said...

You are right. In Denmark the word is often used to describe people originated from another country and then learned Danish. It's stupid, because it simply refers to a person with the ability to use to languages.