A Plea for Bilingualism

To my most pleasant surprise as a language trainer, my students show an absolutely amazing English level even before we start classes. And this has to be addressed as such: in a country where English is not loved nor liked, where the subject has been subject to forced learning, despised grammar lessons and irregular verbs learning by heart, to actually meet people who speak English fluently, who make an excellent use of English and who know expressions and idioms I could only think of when teaching a specific class – well, that just leaves you in awe of them.

So imagine my bafflement when most of my students decidedly state, when asked, that they are definitely not bilinguals. To them – especially and specifically to those who have an admirable level of English – bilingualism has come to mean a perfect proficiency in both mother tongue and a second language.

But that’s just wrong. Bilingualism means speaking and understanding two languages, receiving and producing messages in two different languages. There is no limitation,

and the level usually deemed necessary to be considering bilingualism is the threshold. This means somewhere between a basic and an independent user of the second language, of an intermediate level. Exactly: you don’t have to be proficient in a second language in order to be considered a bilingual. Bilingualism is the ability to speak to languages: there is no restriction whatsoever as to the level of proficiency.

So when one of my favorite classes with a new group or student starts with the question: Do you consider yourself a bilingual? And the answer I get is a truly saddening “no”, I just make them watch this video about the works of a bilingual brain and then I just amend my question. Now that you’ve watched this video, you’ve understood everything, you can even tell me what it’s about and what you make of it, the real questions is: what kind of a bilingual are you? Then we can talk and debate and that just goes on to prove my point in the first place: they are all bilinguals.

English – just as any other language – is one of those rare goods that belong to everybody and make you immensely rich at the same time. The English language is not the sole prerogative of native speakers and is as such not finite; it is limited to no specific group of people, it is there for everybody to enjoy and make the best of its use. English can take you a long way, whether it’s for a better position on a long list of candidates for the same job, asking for directions in a foreign country, reading original books of great authors, dealing with business partners, watching movies and hearing actors’ original voices, or even better expressing what you feel. So why not just accept it as the good it is, embrace it and love it?

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