What Does Being Bilingual Really Mean?

“Someone who is trilingual speaks three languages.

Someone who is bilingual speaks two languages.

Someone who is monolingual is American.”

We all started this journey to help our children become bilingual citizens of the world. But, in reality, do we truly know what being bilingual means?

I read an Huffington Post article that labeled the different shapes and depths of bilingual people. Yes, there are more than a few types of people who are bilingual. Perhaps, learning a bit more about them could help us understand what we want for our children and what expectations we should actually have

Collage of Kids_zpshznryufj According to the article, there are four types of bilingual people. The first are Receptive Bilinguals. This group is far from what we want for our children. Receptive Bilinguals are characterized as individuals who have native fluency in one language and can understand another language but cannot speak it.

This can be hard for native English speakers to understand because there aren’t that many languages similar enough to English that we can understand them without any study. On the other hand, people who learn the romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) can often understand their counterpart languages.

The second type of bilingual people is also not the standard we are looking for our children. Dominant Bilinguals are individuals who are more proficient in one language than another. These are usually used to refer to people who learn a second language through work or school instead of being completely immersed in it.

Collage of Kids_zpshznryufj Let’s give the example of an investment banker who has dealings with Chinese peers. If he is only using or learning Chinese to deal with business, he might have a great understanding of the idioms and vocabulary linked to business. But, on the other hand, his Chinese will still trail far behind his English knowledge in many, if not all, other areas. This might be a good type of bilingualism for people looking to travel, but definitely not for our children, who we should push to become one of the next two types of bilinguals.

Balanced Bilinguals, like the name hints, are people with an equal knowledge of two or more languages. These are individuals who grow up in environments where they have to learn more than one language in order to make due. The article uses as an example children who move from country to country, but we can easily link the analogy to our own children.

With the babysitters, tutors, cartoons in other languages and all other tips you’ve heard of on this blog, our kids do grow up in an environment where they are immersed in at least two different languages.

There is one shortcoming in the description of balanced bilinguals, however. These are also people who lack a native-like fluency in any of the languages they grow up learning. This, in turn, forces us to label this group as a desirable target for our children, but definitely not the “golden standard” they should be striving for.

Equilinguals are the golden standard we are looking for. Equilingual people are those who speak two languages with native-like fluency. While it is nice to aim for this goal, the article also mentions that this is often an unattainable goal. And yet, just because it’s hard it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for it, right?

Collage of Kids_zpshznryufj
Hitting that goal also takes extreme measures sometimes. Take me for example; I had to write my son’s babysitter a contract stating that she would only speak to him in Chinese. That is just one of the many measures we have to take to give our children the best chance to develop a native accent.

While we can’t be certain that our child will reach that golden standard, there are a few things we should keep in mind to give them the best opportunity.

1- Start immersing them in the new language early. How early? Yesterday. The earlier your child starts learning the new language, the better.

2- Figure out what type of bilingual goal you can commit to. Be real with yourself and devise a plan of how to get the best out of what you can provide your children with. We all have our restraints in time and resources, but these should not stop us from helping our kids to the best of our abilities.

3- Start early! I can’t reinforce enough how important this is. A Chinese teacher once told me that if you start your child before age ten, they won’t have an American accent and will sound more like a native speaker.

Don’t forget to check out the Huffington Post article and let me know which bilingual standard you are committing to helping your kid to get to. As always, don’t forget to leave your comment below and stay tuned to our Facebook page @our21stcenturykids for the latest news you can use.

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