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Linguistic Possession: When are we Bilingual?

By: Anastasia Boldireff
Being bilingual has become a catch-all phrase.  If bilingualism is a murky term, with a plethora of meaning; then, being ‘bilingual’ is a loaded term.  When does someone get to claim possession of another language?  Is it when they can order dinner in that language?  When they are able to successfully live abroad?  When they pass a C1 or are able to attain an academic or professional level in that language?

As an English teacher, I know that we are trained to be obsessed with listening to nuances, and are even more neurotic about labelling students and categorizing them as being ‘able’ to do something, or not.  With this in mind, as a person who has studied three languages (English, French, and Latin), has spoken four in her lifetime (Lithuanian, English, French, and Spanish) – two of which I have never received formal education for – how should I, or anyone claim bilingual status?

I was told to prepare a conference on Bilingualism and Biculturalism a year ago and the more I engaged with this topic, the more I became aware of these terms being dubious ones; and the more aware I became of my own linguistic acquisitions.  In researching the word ‘bilingual’ I now realize that there is a specific scale and specific labels in the world of linguistics to attribute to people of varying levels of linguistic capacity.  For instance, being ‘fully bilingual’; this is a person – like my little cousin – who gets confused when you ask which language came first.  These people in my mind are entirely bilingual; all the rest of us on the spectrum long for that level of linguistic dexterity.  Another term, is being ‘functionally bilingual’; meaning that while you do speak two languages, you favour one over the other.  I am functionally bilingual in Spanish and French.  Pseudo-lingualism, on the other hand, is something entirely different.  Deriving from the Latin word ‘pseudo’ means ‘not actually, but having the appearance of’ or ‘trying to be’.  To put this into context, people who are pseudo-linguals, really don’t speak the other language but they can probably order dinner in it successfully.  

We see this all the time in a social context but lack the linguistic terminology in order to categorize speakers.  For instance, if I get irritated I try to show that I can, in fact, speak Spanish.  But then, I back-peddle and realize the gap between where my Spanish is, and where a native’s is significant.  At parties, we frequently love to claim access to multiple languages, perhaps to make us look more interesting.  Then there is the awkward moment when someone does in fact speak that language and you freeze – caught red-handed, metaphorically speaking – claiming that you know something that you don’t.  People do it all the time.  It is ironic however, that the way that people claim languages in a professional setting is entirely different and that people are generally more apprehensive to declare that they do speak another language.  I find specificity of saying that I have a B1+ level in Spanish calming as I can claim access to it, but also specify by saying inadvertently – hey, I’m not a native.  I think that by being specific and honest with ourselves and our capacities, in every context, that we can prevent social awkwardness and over-embellished declarations.  I do not know when people can claim legitimate access to another language, but I like to think that by being honest and specific with yourself, will help determine what type of bilingual you are.    

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