I was having a conversation with some close friends about bilingual schools a few days ago. A comment by one of them, and especially the vehemence about it in her voice, really stuck with me – she said that her children would be perfectly bilingual when they graduated. I was disturbed by the fact that their school (and a lot of others, by the way) seems to capitalise on the idea that they will be able to somehow fabricate perfect bilinguals who sound like native speakers. They sell this dream to parents and fool them into having unrealistic expectations, chasing the illusion of perfection instead of looking at the issue in a holistic way.
The short answer is that no two bilinguals are alike, and ‘perfect’ isn’t actually a realistic goal! But let me elaborate. When pondering over this question, we first need to ask ourselves what being bilingual means to us.
- How proficient do we expect someone to be in their languages?
- Would we consider a person bilingual if they are fluent in one language and less so in another or understand it perfectly well but would not or cannot speak or write in it?
- Would we consider someone bilingual if they use their other language(s) only rarely or never?
- Would we base our reasoning on the frequency of usage or rather – on the level of fluency attained?
And even more importantly – when we say we would like our child to be bilingual, what is it that we have in mind? What does it entail? Would it mean sounding like a native speaker? Would it be a failure if this is not achieved? Would you consider monolingual speakers of that language to be the benchmark? Potentially because of the societal expectation of such an outcome?
Language use of a monolingual speaker is, unfortunately, still commonly used to measure the success of language attainment and bilinguals are often measured as two monolinguals in one. And should a bilingual fail to meet these standards, their language skills are often considered deficient, unsatisfactory and simply lacking altogether. To be fair, the ideal ‘balanced bilingual’ is indeed achievable but a rather rare occurrence. However, not because it’s physiologically impossible, but because language skills and language use evolve and develop around context and purpose. Bilingual speakers use their languages in different contexts, with different people, striving to achieve different goals, which leads to a heterogeneous development in each language. And if we were to take it up a notch and look at bilingualism in a holistic way, we would have to fully part with the idea of languages as separate entities that need to be developed to perfection. The holistic view of a bilingual represents a complete linguistic being with their languages integrated into a well-oiled linguistic system that is not static and serves their communicative needs, depending on the context and purpose.
My son, for example, uses English with his dad and his family to talk about vehicles, space and birds, and – Bulgarian with me and my family to talk about sports, cooking and other hobbies. Therefore, his English vocabulary in sports and cooking is not developed as well as his Bulgarian and visa versa. Does this make him an unaccomplished bilingual? Not in the least! What would happen though if we were to start measuring his respective language skills to these of his cousins, for example? Naturally, they would not measure up because he is not two monolingual speakers in one but one ‘imperfect’ bilingual whose languages have developed around varying contexts and purposes relevant to him and his environment. In fact, such a comparison would be rather harmful to his bilingual development and identity, making him feel inadequate and inferior, potentially leading to abandoning one of his languages altogether. And now think about your first language for a moment – can you converse in or write about every topic equally well? For example, being familiar with all the intricacies of a car or a ship, discussing political, medical or legal matters? My point exactly!
Circling back to my friend’s school – their goal is to have all children achieve a C1 level upon graduation. However, this would mean that they are being trained towards fulfilling the requirements of a standardised test and not that they are necessarily prepared for all the contexts and purposes they will need their languages for outside of the school setting. So, would they be perfectly bilingual once they leave school? I shouldn’t think so! We need to make a distinction between achieving a certain language level and being perfectly bilingual – two different things that are not synonymous!
There is a multitude of varying considerations that ultimately yield a clear conclusion – perfect bilingualism is a utopic notion. And we need to ask ourselves – do we really need to strive for it and, even more, do we want to put our children through the process?
Crisfield, E. (2021) Bilingual families. A practical language planning guide. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
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