What Does Bilingual Mean?

When you hear the term “Bilingual” what do you think of? Some say that bilingual means that a person is a native speaker of two languages, others say bilingual means that someone is fluent in two languages. There are also many who say that bilingual means simply to be able to communicate in two languages. But, what is the true definition of someone who is bilingual? What does bilingual really mean? And when can you actually call someone bilingual?

What is the definition of bilingual?

According to the Oxford Dictionary  the definition of bilingual is:

Bilingual as a Noun: “A person fluent in two languages”
Bilingual as an Adjective: “Speaking two languages fluently”

It really isn’t clear cut, because the word “fluent” also can also mean different things to different people. And, it varies on who you speak to, or which research you read, as to how fluent someone needs to be, to be called bilingual.

How does someone become bilingual?

Many people who are bilingual have acquired two languages from their early childhood. They may have had parents who spoke two different languages with them (OPOL), or they may have lived in a community where the language spoken outside, was different to the one spoken at home. (MLAH).

Others may have been brought up with one language, and acquired another language later in life. They may have studied the language at school, had a bilingual education, travelled, or learned for other reasons.

When can you call someone bilingual?

When you look at what it means to be bilingual, different people have different ideas on how fluent someone needs to be in the two languages they speak, to actually be considered bilingual.

“Speaking two languages fluently” is one definition. But if talk about monolinguals who speak only one language, and we consider everyone “fluent” in that language, there are many differences in the levels of “fluency.”

Sometimes the amount of education a person has received will influence the amount of vocabulary they have. Does it mean that someone less educated is less fluent in their native language?

When can we call children bilingual?

Many people, including myself, call their children bilingual when they are raised to speak two languages, even if they are young and don’t yet speak those languages fluently. Some children learn quicker than others, some take a little more time to master both languages. Does that mean we can still call them bilingual? Or should we wait until they are adults?

I would think that if a child can speak their languages to the level of their peers, that those languages would be considered native, and therefore those children cand be called bilingual. However there are some who would disagree if one language isn’t as fluent as the other.

What about reading and writing?

There is also the question of reading and writing. Does a person need to be able to speak, read and write in both languages to be called bilingual? Many people consider themselves bilingual if they have been brought up with two languages, even if they are not equally fluent in both, or if they can only read and write in one language.

Professionals in the field say that not all bilinguals will have the same proficiency in both languages they speak anyway. In many cases, one of the languages is stronger.

Professor Francois Grosjean

Specialist in bilingualism Professor Francois Grosjean mentions in an article from his website:

“Bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them. Some bilinguals are dominant in one languages, others do not know how to read and write one of their languages, others have only passive knowledge of a language and, finally, a small minority, have equal and perfect fluency in their languages. What is important to keep in mind is that bilinguals are very diverse, as are monolinguals”

To be bilingual means different things to different people

How and why a person acquired their languages can influence their own, and others’ perception of the word bilingual.

While one person who was brought up in a bilingual household may not consider themselves bilingual because they feel they cannot speak both languages to the same level, another may believe they are bilingual as soon as they are able to express themselves comfortably in both languages.

While one person may not consider themselves bilingual simply because they learned a language later in life, rather than from birth, another who was brought up bilingually from birth may not consider themselves bilingual because they do not use the language anymore.

So what does bilingual mean?

There are definitions in a dictionary, and from professionals in the field, however sometimes it comes down to how a person feels being able to express themselves in both of their languages. There are so many ways to be called bilingual. What does bilingual mean to you?

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