Raising children to speak two languages is no easy feat. Parents often find themselves enrolling children in language immersion programs, exposing them to different languages at home, encouraging them watch cartoons in another language, and sometimes even hiring language tutors or nannies to speak to their kids in foreign languages. But does this process need to be so hard? All we want is for our kids to become bilingual.
While many parents might define bilingualism as a person who can speak two languages with native-like fluency, this ‘gold standard’ is often unreasonable and unattainable. Bilingualism exists on a continuum, where a speaker has varying levels of linguistic proficiency in a first language and a second language. The following article seeks to uncover a nuanced understanding of what it means to be bilingual, in hopes of breaking down the seemingly daunting task of raising bilingual children.
A receptive bilingual is someone who has native-fluency in one language, and can understand but not speak a second language. Many second-generation immigrant populations in the United States are receptive bilinguals, where they understand the mother tongue used by their parents, but respond to their parents in English – the language of school and society. While many are quick to categorize receptive bilinguals as monolingual, the reality is they belong on the bilingual spectrum. With an astute awareness of linguistic diversity (e.g., distinguishing in Cantonese between “唔該” thank you or excuse me, and “多謝” thank you for a gift); and with an appreciation for the sociocultural idiosyncrasies that are embedded within a language (e.g., using “你食咗飯未啊？” Have you eaten yet?, as a greeting), receptive bilingual speakers are far different from children who speak one language and understand one culture. With America becoming increasingly diverse, it is imperative that we become a society with more receptive bilinguals.
A dominant bilingual is a person who is more proficient in one of two languages. These speakers tend to have native fluency in language one, with elementary to average proficiency in language two. This category might include people who develop a decent command of a foreign language in school or living abroad. It might also include people in the workplace, who gain notable proficiency in their second language within a specific domain (e.g., politics, education, fashion, or business). In these contexts, people accumulate essential work-related vocabulary, phrases, and cultural mannerisms to work in their second language. While society often illegitimizes the linguistic prowess of dominant bilinguals, or believes that they need to work harder to attain native-like fluency in their second language before it can be considered a ‘second language’, the reality is that they, too, are a far cry from being monolingual, and deserve a place on the bilingual continuum.
A balanced bilingual is a person who is equally proficient in language one and two, but does not necessarily pass for a native speaker in either language. This might occur among populations who are immersed in two languages but are not equipped with a strong literacy foundation in either. It may also occur among children who move from country to country, adapting well from one linguistic environment to the next. Balanced bilinguals have a commendable repertoire of languages, but are unfortunately subject to criticism for their lack of native-like fluency in any language. Like the receptive and dominant bilingual speakers, balanced bilinguals are assets in today’s globalized economy as they navigate cross-cultural differences and bridge linguistic divides.
Speakers who are equilingual speak two languages with native-like fluency. In other words, they are indistinguishable from native speakers of either language. This is the strictest form of bilingualism, which is considered by many as the gold standard. While being an equilingual speaker reaps obvious benefits, the reality is that perfect bilingualism is often an unattainable and unreasonable expectation, as perfection is an unfair bar to hold a child to. In addition, parents may feel paralyzed by the burden of raising perfectly bilingual children. Therefore, revisiting what it really means to become bilingual – that is, to be placed on the bilingual spectrum, frees us from striving for flawless fluency, and enables us to instill bilingualism as a norm in this next generation.
“Someone who is trilingual speaks three languages.
Someone who is bilingual speaks two languages.
Someone who is monolingual is American.”
Let’s not make that joke a reality. Reconsider what it means to be bilingual, and strive together for an intercultural, multilingual nation.