It’s a Saturday afternoon at the end of June and I’ve just finished a pleasant lunch, consumed on the terrace in the company of my Italian in-laws, who each speak several foreign languages, my three kids, who are bilingual, and my wife who is trilingual. Since you ask, we enjoyed spaghetti with a fish sauce, washed down with a rough but drinkable “vino sfuso”. And the sun was shining, at last.
With the idea for this article in mind, I asked who would consider themselves bilingual. Four hands went up. In the discussion that followed, there was common agreement that being bilingual meant “being able to think in both languages”. Which, unsurprisingly, everyone thought was a good thing.
I’m assuming from the fact that you’re reading this that you (we) weren’t fortunate enough to be born with parents of different nationalities, be brought up in a community where people commonly use two or more languages, or have attended school in another country: all situations which typically (but not necessarily) favour the development of bilingualism.
Could YOU become bilingual too? Is that really possible?
Obviously the answer is going to depend, at least in part, on our definition of the term.
So over to http://oxforddictionaries.com, which offers the following definitions:
bilingual (adj.) : speaking two languages fluently
fluent (adj.): able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately
accurate (adj.): correct in all details
which seem fairly coherent with the idea of native-speaker-like competence, aquired as a consequence of having a foreign parent and so on. Or “thinking in both languages” as my kids put it.
But check out the ever helpful Wikipedia article on the subject (do, it’s fascinating) and, as always, it appears that the issue is more complex.
First of all, I learnt that these days we talk of “multilingualism” rather than bilingualism, though that does seem appropriate for my family.
Then, it appears that the idea of “speaking a language correctly” is less helpful a benchmark of multilingualism that you might at first have thought. To quote the anonymous Wikpedia contributor:
A tourist who can handle a simple conversation with a waiter may be completely lost when it comes to discussing current affairs or even using multiple tenses. A diplomat or businessman who can handle complicated negotiations in a foreign language may not be able to write a simple letter correctly. A four-year-old French child would usually be said to “speak French fluently”, but it is possible that he cannot handle the grammar as well as even some mediocre foreign students of the language do and may have a very limited vocabulary despite possibly having perfect pronunciation. On the other hand, it is quite common that even very highly accomplished linguists may speak the language(s) of which they are experts with a distinct accent and to have gaps in their active vocabulary when it comes to everyday topics and situations.
Insomma, it’s complicated. And accuracy is not the be all and end all either, which is just as well because on my other site, where I write in Italian, I am regularly told off by readers for forgetting the congiuntivo.
Other than accuracy, accent, ease of use, and the feeling of being able to “think in the language” could all enter into a definition of multilingualism. No controversy there.
But, back to the point. How could you or I acquire this nirvannah-like state of foreign language competence?
Here I’ll bin the dictionaries and encyclopedias and tell you my own theory.
What we think of as bilingualism, or fluency in a foreign language, arises as a consequence of the need to use it, and is a function of time spent doing so. No more, no less. You have to use language X to get by, you do so, you get better at doing it. Simple as that.
Here’s a thought experiment.
Suppose, by some horrible series of misunderstandings, you ended up being jailed for twenty years in a foreign country where you didn’t know the language and no one spoke English. Say China.
It would be pretty tough at first, right? But in time you’d probably start to pick up bits and pieces from your cellmates. Maybe after a few years you’d get a prison job, or take a course. That would help. And who knows? With a lot of time on your hands, you might even learn to read Chinese. After all, there wouldn’t be any books in English, and you’d have nothing much else to do.
Finally, decades later, you’re released. You now speak “fluent” Chinese, know bits and pieces of some local dialects too, can read at the level of junior high school, and write simple letters and emails. You’ve developed a comprehensive knowledge of the Chinese legal system, plus a passion for the pop music and sport. Oh, and you can cook Chinese food and swear fluently in Chinese when you splash hot wok oil on yourself.
Would you consider yourself bilingual? Probably not.
Would your overjoyed family and friends think of you as bilingual in Chinese? It’s likely, don’t you think?
Forget the thought experiment. Here’s a real example.
A few years back I decided that, being very stressed and working way too much, I should find a hobby.
Did you know, Italians are obsessed by courses? You can’t just go swimming. You have to take a “swimming course”. Don’t join a punk rock band: take a singing course. Kids go to football (soccer) courses from the age of about four here. Etcetera.
Anyway, I spotted a poster for a sailing course and, dreaming of idling my life away on a boat instead of stressing out in a language school, I signed up.
Months of intense study followed, with (as is typical in Italy) a sprinkling of last minute practical experience. The ratio between the two was about 99-1.
Until taking the course I knew nothing about sailing or navigation at all. Probably you don’t either, so let’s imagine we’re on a yacht together somewhere hot and sunny.
With my shiny new “patente nautica” (a sort of yacht driving licence, acquired by memorising lots of facts), I’ll be the captain and you be the crew. OK?
And hey, let’s do this in Italian, that way you’ll at least get some practice.
Pronto? O.K. Let’s start with the “dis-ormeggio”. Then you take the “timone” until we get out of the port, while I take up the “parabordi”. Good. Now let’s put her into the wind and I’ll haul up the “randa”. Perfect, now please a “bolina” with “mura a sinistra” and I’ll open the “fiocco”. Sorted. So, fancy a beer? Nice day for “andare a vela”, isn’t it?
And the point is? Simple, I have NO IDEA how to say some of these things in my native language.
If we really were on a boat, I’d lack the correct terms to give you these instructions in English (though you’d have no idea what I was talking about anyway, right?)
So, maybe my accent in Italian sucks. No actually, it does. And surely my grammar is all over the place. Sometimes I’ll mix words up too.
But when it comes to yachting, my language is Italian no matter how horrible it may sound to my Italian crew.
Conclusion? Bilingual doesn’t have to mean perfect. Bilingual is, as my kids put it, being able to think in a language.
How to become bilingual? Well, sooner or later, you’re going to have to stop “studying” Italian, and start “doing” Italian.
P.S. But perhaps not right today, as the final e-book in our Italian Workout! series is now available in our shop at the special launch price of €9.99..
What activities would help you become bilingual in Italian? And is it even possible? Leave a comment on this post. I’d love to read your views!