Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Am I bilingual?

The Meriam Webster dictionary defines bilingual as "using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency". According to this definition, I am bilingual.

According to the Common European Framework, I am level C2, proficient user, in French because I can:

  •  understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  •  summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

The people in my French neighborhood think I'm bilingual. Yet, I would never call myself that. Yes, my children are bilingual because they have grown up speaking two different languages. But not me. I learned French at school in New Jersey, came to France to study, did a Masters in France and started my life here. I now speak English most of the time : at home (where we are OPOL), at work where the working language is English, and socially where my closest friends are native English speakers.

When I first came to France in 1996 until I started my current job in 2003, I spoke French 75% of the time. When I started my current job, the amount of time I spoke French per day dropped to about 30%. And since my first child was born in 2006, the amount of English I speak per day has climbed to the point where there are days I don't utter a single word of French. It even got to the point where I barely hear French, except for the French half of our family conversations (ie when my husband speaks to the kids or me).

But during our vacation this summer - we stayed in France and didn't see any English speakers - I noticed a few phenomenons:
  • I am so used to our family's linguistic gymnastics that I do not realize that I speak English to people who I should be speaking French to
  • After having a couple weeks in a Franco-French environment, my English became "tainted" and I had trouble finding some English words and mixed them up with french expressions.
  • And finally, reading in French came back quickly. After a hiatus of too many years to count, I picked up a book in French and began reading it. Although it was slow going for the first hundred pages. After a while, I was reading in the same way I read in English. And just like in English, there were certain words I don't know the precise definition of but I could read in the context.

So am I bilingual? I don't know. I'm more bilingual that most Americans. But I have an accent, I make mistakes in French and my kids are constantly correcting me. I still can't pronounce words like soleil (sun) and bouilloire (electric kettle) but I can read 600 page books in French.

So what is bilingualism? Do you consider yourself bilingual?


Lauren said...

Interesting how many of the observations on which you have reported in your children during their NJ summer, are the very same things you have just experienced! I think you are bilingual!

Anonymous said...

I think you are bilingual, too. You should check out François Grosjean's blog about bilingualism. He really understands the bilingual mind. Sometimes I feel like he is in my head. Before reading his work, I was conflicted about whether I could truly describe myself as bilingual. Now I know I can. Here is his blog First check out his list of myths about bilingualism.

Gifted Gabber said...

I think you definitely fall under the category of bilingual. From my experience, many people call themselves bilingual when they can't read or write a lick in the second language. I consider myself semi-bilingual, if there is such a thing. Grew up in a bilingual home but didn't really learn to read or write the second language until high school. I am a Spanish and ESL teacher who speaks Spanish while teaching and interprets for non-English-speaking parents. I am a mom who is raising our daughter to be bilingual with the OPOL method. But yet I know my fluency levels are not equal in both languages.
Thanks for sharing your post!
Amy @

L said...

When I did my junior year abroad I basically became bilingual, but I also understood how much I didn't know and how much room for improvement was there. Practically off the plane from France, I got put in a group project with a sophomore who had spent 3-4 months in Italy and went on and on about how she was completely bilingual following that experience. I thought she was crazy!

The French are always shocked by my good accent, but after 3 weeks of solid English use this summer, my husband was correcting my grammar every sentence. I do have to use French every day at work, so I cracked open a grammar workbook to refresh my memory and make less of a fool of myself. I'm coming to realize I have a LOT of fossilized grammatical errors in French! But then I'm also counted on as the official English speaker at work, so I feel like reading Jane Austen is really just being professional :-)

Reb said...

there are definitely a lot of definitions of what bilingual is. and I guess the context changes quite a bit depending on where you are...I really like Gorsjean's definition (I have read a couple of his books). good reading for all bilinguals (or semi-bilinguals!)

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