If you’re able to speak two languages fluently, you can call yourself bilingual. In this age of global connectivity, many people are even multilingual and have mastered several languages. Why then is there a continuing discussion on what bilingual means? In the following, we’ll tackle the subject of native speakers, language proficiency, and even “translanguage”.

What is the definition of bilingual?

To begin, let’s take apart the word itself: the prefix “bi” signifies two, and lingua is the Latin word for “tongue” and “language”. Therefore a bilingual is someone who is able to speak two languages. Yet a look at the dictionary definition reveals a subtle addition:

Bilingual: Speaking two languages fluently.

The difference then is all in the fluency, because how fluent do you have to be for the label bilingual to apply?

How do you become bilingual?

When you are a native speaker, you can of course claim to be fluent in your mother tongue. But it is a common misconception that to be truly bilingual, you have to have acquired your second language (and additional ones) in early childhood already. Studies into language learning show that it is certainly easier to do so, but you can become bilingual later in life as well, in adolescence and in adulthood.

Certain factors might contribute to becoming bilingual, such as immigration, but also growing up in a multicultural household or neighborhood, or with a bilingual caretaker. But you can also acquire a second language through school or studies alone and all by yourself.

Bilingualism occurs all around the world, at all ages and all levels of society. The United States, for example, has an estimated 50 million bilinguals. Being multilingual even in childhood is common in parts of India, and in many European countries, children learn at least one foreign language in school.

Is bilingualism a question of proficiency?

The belief exists that there is such a thing as true bilingualism where you have to have mastered both languages equally in order to call yourself bilingual. The ideal bilingual, you could argue, also has a deep understanding of history, culture, society, accent, and usage in order to understand and speak a language like a native.

The requirement of equal or total proficiency goes against how we commonly perceive bilinguals. Professor Emeritus François Grosjean in his work on bilingualism states that bilingual people know the two languages to the level that they need them to know. It is common for one language to be dominant, and biliteracy, the ability to read and write in both languages, does not have to present.

Happy Asian woman who is bilingual talking to a colleague

Bilingual language use as translanguage

Translanguage happens when bilingual people combine their languages in new and creative ways to express themselves. It is not a shortcoming and doesn’t mean they have failed to master either of the two. Instead, this kind of linguistic dexterity is a sign of the deep connection and level of engagement with both languages.

However, terms like “Denglish” (Deutsch-English) or “Spanglish” (Spanish-English) can carry a derogatory connotation in the sense of a simplified mix-and-match approach to language use. The opposite is true: bilinguals are not lazy or stupid when they mix languages in this way. They borrow and switch back and forth among their repertoire to enhance their communication skills and freedom of expression as the situation requires. When taking to a monolingual, someone who only understands one language, bilingual people are capable of sticking to just that.

The benefits of being bilingual

It is also a myth that bilingual children take longer to acquire either language or suffer setbacks at school if they speak a different language at home. On the contrary, bilingualism has academic, cognitive, socio-cultural and even economic advantages. Being bilinguals leads to enhanced neuro-connectivity, fostering problem-solving and analytical skills as well as language learning and communication.

Multilingual people tend to exhibit a strong sense of identity and capacity to identify with others and other cultures. The greater access to culture, learning material and opportunities brings a further increase in beneficial options and chances.

If you’re bilingual, increasing your proficiency in either language furthers your already complex linguistic practises and expands your knowledge. But don’t let anyone put you down for calling yourself bilingual and not adhering to an impossible standard of fluency!

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