As a PhD candidate specializing in bilingualism and bilingual education, I have often heard interesting comments and assumptions about bilingualism. In this blog post, I am introducing and debunking two common myths about bilingualism.
Common Myth 1: People who are bilingual can speak two languages perfectly.
I teach a bilingual theory course at Boston College. My students are Master’s students in Curriculum and Instruction. Each time, at the very beginning of the first class, I ask my students whether or not they consider themselves to be bilingual. Interestingly, while most of them have learned at least one second language for approximately 4 to 10 years, very few students identify themselves as bilingual. They reply with explanations such as:
“I have learned Spanish for 8 years, but my Spanish is not as good as my English. I am not bilingual!”
“I always talk to my grandparents in Italian, but there is no way I can use Italian to take a graduate course. I am not bilingual.”
“As an international student from China, I can use English to participate in graduate level courses. However, I have a bad accent. I am definitely not bilingual.”
Most people equate being bilingual with perfectly balanced proficiency in two languages, and thus do not consider themselves to be bilingual. Nevertheless, in reality, it is extremely rare for anybody to develop balanced proficiency in two or more languages. It is quite possible that a bilingual individual is stronger in one language in a particular context, yet more comfortable in another language in a different context. For instance, a Mexican American person may speak without any accent in both Spanish and English, but his or her vocabulary in each language might reside in different domains. To this person, it might be highly likely that expressing feelings and communicating with family members using Spanish feels more natural. In contrast, participating in academic studies using English is much easier.
It is also widely believed that someone is not considered bilingual unless he or she can produce accent-free speeches in both languages. It is a widely held myth that accent-free speech symbolizes nativeness, linguistically speaking. Nevertheless, it is significantly less likely for adult language learners to achieve native-like pronunciation, despite their high proficiency in all four skills. As a matter of fact, being bilingual depends more on language practices rather than language proficiency. As long as you are able to communicate in two languages and use both languages on regular basis, you are considered bilingual!
Common Myth 2: Online translation software can replace bilingual speakers (false).
A few days ago, during my dental visit, I overheard two hygienists chatting and laughing outside the office. One lady was sharing her experience the previous night calling customer services. “Nowadays, it takes you forever to reach a customer service representative…You need to call, wait for the automatic message to ask you to select a language, wait wait wait while listening to the music, and select more options…. Press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish… So much time wasted! Why not just have some kind of online translation software--you talk in whatever language you want, and the listener can hear it in English?”
Well, can online translation software replace bilingual speakers? The answer is no. If bilingualism simply equates to repeating the same information in two different languages, then our hardworking teachers will not have to spend hours and hours preparing culturally and linguistically responsive bilingual texts to students. Instead, a simple click of the online translation software would work. However, this is never the case.
Bilingualism is not simply the sum of two languages. Emotion, identity, and personal experiences are all deep-rooted in and expressed through languages. King of the Franks Charlemagne once said, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” There is so much more behind a different language. The nuances in feelings, emotion, and identity go beyond the meaning expressed. For example, when I say ‘thank you’ in English, I feel professional, formal, and serious. However, when I say ‘Xiexie’ (thank you in Chinese), I feel closer to home, more secure and informal.
Bilingualism has not yet (and may never) be replaced by high-tech translation software. I am blessed that, through speaking a second language, I have a second soul. Xiexie!