Did you know that true bilingualism is impossible?

Published on 04/10/2017

Anyone who works with two or more languages dreams of being bilingual. In certain countries, this term means that a person can speak two languages, without taking into account their level of proficiency.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the term bilingual refers to a person who is able to use two languages equally well. However, it may often be considered that a bilingual person is someone who has native language skills in two languages.

Certain parameters can be used to help us to determine whether a person is bilingual or not, based on this particular perspective. Accent would be the first criterion to take into account. Although a person’s accent is influenced by the specific region or area where they are from, incorrect pronunciation, strange intonation or a distinctive melody contour are usually signs of a foreign accent. It is fairly easy to identify a Chinese person speaking in English, taking into account that Chinese is hugely different to English, being a language in which tones play an essential role in the meaning of words. The fact of the matter is that, in the majority of cases, speaking with a correct accent is related to the young age at which a person first had contact with a language. Therefore, the children of immigrants whose parents have always spoken their native language at home do not have a distinctive pronunciation. However, nor can they be considered bilingual, as we will examine below. Their linguistic competence is often much more limited than that of a native.

Perfect bilingualism is just an illusion

A bilingual person should be able to communicate in two languages, whether through reading or oral expression and comprehension, in a wide range of different situations. The variety of situations in which we have to interact makes it difficult and even impossible to have identical knowledge of two different languages.

For example, let us examine the case of a child of English parents who have moved to France, Germany or Spain. The child would hear English at home, but would pursue primary education in the language of the destination country. He or she would therefore be able to maintain a conversation within a family or day-to-day setting, with an authentic native accent, all with a colloquial or informal register. However, their vocabulary in the working or academic field would have been learnt solely in French, German or Spanish. Therefore, it would be difficult for the person to take part in a conversation in English about politics, technology or science, due to a lack of vocabulary in these fields.

By contrast, in the case of a French, German or English person who has academic knowledge after having studied English at university, their linguistic register world have very different contextual and linguistic variables. Their mode of expression would be more formal and specialised, but they would lack oral fluency, all of the resources related to informal conversation and references from popular culture. Furthermore, their accent would no doubt give away their native language.

It is estimated that an average English speaker uses around 10% of all of the words that actually exist in the language. If it were only a matter of word volume, learning several languages and becoming bilingual would not be so difficult. We can therefore conclude that learning all of the different social and cultural concepts necessary to understand the connotations of the language, mastering spoken and written linguistic registers and acquiring a correct pronunciation in two languages is a never-ending task.

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Josh Gambin

Josh Gambin holds a 5-year degree in Biology from the University of Valencia (Spain) and a 4-year degree in Translation and Interpreting from the University of Granada (Spain). He has worked as a freelance translator, in-house translator, desktop publisher and project manager. From 2002, he is a founding member of AbroadLlink and currently works as Marketing and Sales Manager.

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