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?


5 comments:

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 http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual. First check out his list of myths about bilingualism. http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/myths_en.html

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 @ http://giftedgabber.blogspot.com/

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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