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..
Download your sample chapter here. Visit the shop to buy your copy now.
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!
John Thomson says
Fantastic article – all you have to do now is teach us how to “do Italian”, accepting the fact that we will not all be moving to Italy, my impression is that “‘doing Italian” is in fact practising conversational Italian, for which I cannot think of any test to measure progress.
As an aside when I worked in our hospital I got wind of the fact that the management were going to name the day surgical unit after me, naturally I was honoured, I loved our hospital but I was not going to die to have something named after me, They went ahead and clearly I am not dead.
In the same vein I have no intention of spending time in a Chinese prison to learn Italian!
The Skype lesson certainly help in “doing Italian”, I also plan to ask my wife Jennifer “Posso avere un espresso per favore” My wife does not speak italian but she does humour me and I can always point to the Bialetti
This article and its “left field approach” may well inspire everyone
“Do Italian” means what it says.
For example, if you like football, what about supporting an Italian team, participating in discussions on your new team’s website, following the matches on satellite or the internet, reading match reports in the Italian press, and so on. You don’t have to be here.
Personally I’ve always followed the US and UK political scenes closely, so naturally I’m making an effort to try to begin to start to learn to understand the complexity which is Italian politics. It has its own, rather masochistic rewards, but is also an excellent language learning activity.
Italian cooking could mean blogs and recipe books in Italian.
Follow the Tour de France on Italian sites or in Italian newspapers.
Wine? There’s lots to read and discuss there.
Radio – listen every day at the same time and you’ll begin to work out who’s who and what the hell is going on.
Fashion, well there’s online shopping, magazines, cat walks, and plenty more.
Literature… Theatre…. Music (opera, jazz, classical, Italian rock, Italian rap, the list goes on and on).
Charity fundraising? In Italian, of course. Most of the biggies have Italian operations too, so you could Greenpeace or whatever in Italian if you chose to.
Religion, or an aethesist group if you’d prefer. What about looking for an Italian congregation?
Small business advice – there are lots of Italian websites, of course.
And last, but not least, what about your computer or mobile phone? If you like a challenge, set the operating system to Italian. And when you get the fiendish Windows 8 and can’t work out out to use it, try a search in google.it rather than google.com or google.co.uk…
See? If you want to be bilingual, do life in Italian. Or at least, some of it.
nice article. Io ho comminciato con cucina italiana e anche canzoni que mi piacono molto.
Thanks for your comment, marcellinka.
Daniel, this is something I’ve thought about often, and I find that probably the biggest obstacle to true fluency is lack of social background knowledge. This is most obvious to me when I watch the Italian game shows “L’eredità” and “Reazione a catena.” These are both excellent for learning new vocabulary and for exposure to cultural knowledge that one might otherwise learn simply by growing up in Italy. The questions often depend on knowing popular songs and entertainment figures but also frequently depend on ‘mode di dire’. I find these ubiquitous idioms and popular phrases to be a real barrier. Yes, I struggle with grammar and vocabulary (although it happens that I knew most of your sailing terms), but when I listen carefully to Italians in conversation on TV or in films, it’s the the idioms and references to children’s songs and political acronyms and sports history that often bring me to a full stop.
When I studied (too briefly) at Madrelingua in Bologna, I loved the sessions that taught us about Italy as a place, because ‘secondo me’ that’s an important part of learning how to be fluent.
Your point is very well made. Cultural knowledge is essential to language competence. Italian newspapers, for example, often refer to figures in the news by just their surnames, and if you have no idea who they are, then you’re out of luck. However effectively you read, you have no chance of following the article.
And popular culture is even worse than politics. To understand what’s going on on the TV, you just have to know the latest Big Brother winner, or whoever is “in” just now.
However, this all rather does lend support to what I was saying in the article. To master the language, we also need to live the language, which of course means acquiring cultural knowledge.
This reminds me of my ex-wife, who was Turkish and knew little English when she arrived in the UK. It took 6 months to get her work permit, and in the meantime she was glued to the TV. After six months of Australian soap operas, the papers arrived and she went straight out and got a job in a fast food restaurant, where she was one of the more competent and effective employees, or so she said.
So, keep on with the TV, but maybe you should specialise? Become a Dr. House expert or a CSI fan??
Very interesting article – got me thinking a lot. Though I’m not so sure that thinking in a particular language makes you bilingual. I’m Russian, but I’ve been living in London for the past 4 years and now rarely think in my native language because there’s nothing Russian around me – I think in English, as well as sometimes in French or Italian if I feel like it. Yet I don’t consider myself bilingual, let alone quadrilingual. And, what is worse, because I lack practice in Russian, I start to forget certain words! And to top it all up, I speak all 4 languages with a mixture of accents. I’m a bit worried that learning other languages will eventually make me zerolingual.
I think maybe you can call someone bilingual if they effortlessly switch between the two languages without ever noticing it – that is, even within one sentence…
The most advanced learners I know, like you Tutu, are rarely the most satisfied with their acomplishments. Beginners tend to be a lot happier, as they seem to progress so fast (relative to knowing nothing at all!)
Naturally, you compare what you know (and your accent) in the foreign languages you use “effortlessly” every day with your competences in your mother tongue, Russian in your case, English in mine. But is that a fair comparison?
I’ve spent 46 years perfecting my English, and if you look carefully you’ll be sure to find a spelling mistake here and there. In contrast, I’ve been using Italian on a daily basis for only about 10 years. So obviously, a comparison between the two is going to leave me feeling much more comfortable in English.
The funny thing is, most “real” bilingual people will admit to feeling the same about one or the other of their mother tongues, if you press them. They’ll have gone to school in one country or the other, usually not both, and so will be more confident writing in one of their languages.
I know someone who is bilingual in two European languages but also speaks excellent English. Put to the test, I’d be surprised if her English wasn’t, objectively, at least as good as the weaker of her mother tongues.
Conclusion? Bilingualism does not equal perfection, which is in any case an illusion when it comes to languages.
What you say about beginning to forget your own langauge is very interesting. I think that’s a common experience… What do other people say??
John Thomson says
Stella, my neice ha seidici anni e abita a Antibes in Francia with her family speaks French at scool and with her friends and English with her Scottish mother and English father.
The interesting thing is that she told me dhe dreams in French !
Kids learn most of their Language from their peers rather than their parents (plus the TV, of course). That’ll be why she dreams in French…
John Thomson says
I am sorry if I appear to be ‘hogging’ all the forums and article comments, I keep trying to desist but I have lots of free time, am becoming addicted to posting and I find the whole site interesting
Anyway my comment :- I decided to start ‘doing Italian’ by trying to understand what was being said in the listening exercises, I started at the beginning
courses -> A1 – Beginners / Elementary -> listening exercises -> Le Lettere C e G – C and G – A1 ->
Unit 1 -> es fonitico 3 , then I hit my first snag !
the transcript is “vado a fare un giro fuori, vieni anche tu”
I simply cannot hear the ‘r’ in fuori it sounds like ‘fuoi’
I also can not make head nor tail of Caterella in Commissario Montalbano, OK he has a Sicilian accent and he speaks the Sicilian dialect
All grist to the mill
Then again who am I to talk, if I said to a fellow Scot “Ah ay eh aw” he would understand immediately but an English man would be flabbergasted when I told him I had just said “I ate it all”