Degrees of Bilingualism

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines bilingualism as the ability to speak two languages.  Now, that is a really specific definition.  For that matter, how well do you need to speak both languages?  How many words you need to have in your vocabulary?  How often do you need to speak each language?  If you can read both, are you bilingual? What about if you understand the spoken words but don’t speak it?  What if you can write both? Where is the fine line when you stop being a monolingual and start being a bilingual?

I believe that your are bilingual, to a degree, when you can function and can fulfill your needs requiring the two languages.  I don’t think there is a fine line that you cross and become bilingual.  I propose there is a zone in which you start to be bilingual to a degree.  Once you progress further enough inside the zone, the you become fully bilingual.  The definition presented is then really defining full bilingualism.

My experience learning a second language started very early when I started elementary school and spans all the way to my second job when I was twenty something.  I’m still learning English and have a lot to improve in my spoken English.  Through out this period I developed different skills that served me and filled my needs at each step.

When cable tv appeared I just needed to understand the spoken English, therefore I developed my hearing and understanding of English.  In high school and college, many of the text books and reports were written in English.  I expanded my skills to include reading and writing.  Even when I studied a master’s degree at Ann Arbor, I just needed the reading and writing skills, and not much speaking.  Therefore, I didn’t spoke much or developed this skill.  It wasn’t until I started working in Puerto Rico with construction management company that I needed to communicate verbally in English with my co-workers, that I finally developed verbal skills.  People really learn their second language when they are in need to communicate in their daily life.

Zone with Degrees of Bilingualism

“Speaking” a language is really about communicating ideas, either understanding a received idea from others or expressing an idea to others in a way that is understood. Understanding what someone else is telling us is easier than making someone understand what we tell.  The first degree of bilingualism is understanding spoken and written expressions in the second language.  It is easier probably because the message already uses the language structure and we just need to understand the idea.  On the other hand, to express an idea in a second language, you have to create the structure of the message and this is harder.  The second degree would be communicating ideas to others so they understand.

If you can understand enough of a second language to complete the daily activities at hand, then you are bilingual…to a degree.  If you are able to communicate ideas to others in a way they understand and you can function together, then you are bilingual to a degree.  With time your skills develop until your are able to handle most of the situations with native speakers of the second language, and then you become fully bilingual.

Further Readings



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