Defining bilingualism is an issue which has plagued linguists for decades. While it’s estimated that half of the world’s population is bilingual, its definition varies.
The traditional definition of bilingualism was defined by Leonard Bloomfield as “the native-like control of two languages”. This however is rare and a rather strict rule on what makes someone bilingual.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have bilingualism being defined as “anyone who possesses a minimal competence in only one of the four language skills, listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing”
If you grew up speaking two languages, or are working towards fluency in your second language, you’ll most likely fall somewhere between these two definitions. There are decades of studies and information out there with regards to what makes someone bilingual but keeping it brief, in answer the to question ‘Are you Bilingual?’ the answer is – it depends.
Not a great answer, I know, but the great thing about something as broad as bilingualism is that you bend the answer to suit your needs. There are certainly levels of proficiency, but to call oneself bilingual is arguably more a question of confidence.
Let’s look at a few brief examples. Take an elderly person who grew up speaking English and German. They grew up in Germany but moved to the UK at a young age. They have lost the ability to speak German but can read it and understand it when spoken at a near native level. Not an uncommon scenario. This is commonly placed in its own category of Receptive Bilingualism, but this should arguably still be considered bilingual. It would hot however fit into Bloomfield’s definition.
Now let’s look at someone who is learning a second language, let’s say Spanish. From a young age they have learned Spanish through family, friends, and social events. They have however neglected to practise reading or writing. They will undoubtedly have some ability in all aspects of the language, but the speech aspect will be far more proficient, they would still be considered bilingual even without the ability to read the language to a proficient level. This could be considered semi-literate, but bilingual none the less.
These are just two examples but illustrate the point well enough. With so many points to consider, it feels like an impossible question. Rather that asking, ‘Are you Bilingual?’ a better question would be ‘How Proficient are you in X?’. This would allow you to assess your language abilities based on your needs.
Whether you’re picking up a new language or brushing up on an old one, learning a language is as rewarding as it is challenging and the proficiency you attain depends on the work you put in. Just remember to keep it fun!
For a more in-depth analysis on bilingualism, click here!