This precise question was asked by one of my students a few days before the end of term break. I had told the class a few seconds before that I was talking in English to my daughter most of the time, and this question was among others :
- Is it hard to switch between languages?
- Do you have to focus when you talk to her in English?
- Why don’t you have an accent when you speak?
I know I looked puzzled and a bilingual student answered to one of the students: “you don’t think, you just switch, it’s natural.” The first student insisted then : “but you must think in one language over the other, right?” I finally answered that it depended on the situation, on the context, that it was not linear at all. I knew she wanted to know what was my dominant language: French or English?
Being bilingual in a (mostly) monolingual environment means being asked a lot of questions. France is ambivalent when it comes to bilingualism: one language must dominate the other, you cannot have the same level in both, ammirite?
Bilingualism doesn’t have a clear definition, Grosjean still writes wonderfully interesting books about it, but in my case, in France, I can see that it mostly depends on how people perceive bilingualism. For example: A is born into an Italian family, where the grand parents were talking mostly in Italian, surely A is bilingual? A heard Italian since birth, clearly A has a high level, so how come A is flunking Italian classes ? How come A cannot translate easily from one language to another? (insert surprised Pikachu meme here to understand the absurdity of the situation)
Let’s take another example: B is born in a French family, Mom and Dad spoke only French. B liked English, so watched movies in English, read in English, and studied extensively English. B cannot be bilingual, right? Because B learned the language? So, it’s not the same thing than being bilingual? Even with a IELTS test score at 8 (out of 9), B is still not considered fully bilingual in English, because you know, Mom and Dad were French. Hey, B, stop showing off!
You get it: A is my father’s example, B is mine. I am SICK AND TIRED to hear that I am not bilingual because my parents speak only French, while I am able to read Joseph Conrad in original version, to watch a program about economic stakes and to write a damn MA dissertation in English. My father, on the other hand, who is not able to hold a conversation in Italian at the bank (for example) without checking Reverso, who cannot write a damn sentence, is considered bilingual.
Dear monolinguals, since you master only one language, you just can’t get it. Language is not fixed, it evolves, and it’s not encoded in your DNA. Yes, my dad was raised by his Italian grandmother, who mostly spoke about everyday life, but he went to school in France. Yes, I was raised by a French mother who knows literally 5 words of English (lift, morning, evening, Saturday, Sunday – that’s it! But she pronounces them perfectly, at least) and by a father who blurted out some Italian words from time to time. But I went to school in France, in the UK, in the US. Bilingualism has many forms, but dear monolinguals, stop trying to put us in boxes.
France is quite hypocritical when it comes to bilingualism too: if you are bilingual in Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, people will just shrug and go on with their lives. But say you are bilingual in English (or German),and people go wild. Are you from this country? How did you become bilingual? Are you really bilingual? The prestige is not the same, you see.
I define myself as multilingual: I can read, listen, write, speak in French, English and Italian. It is not that uncommon; once again, monolinguals are not the norm, bilinguals and multilinguals are. But in any case, the question remains the same: what is your dominant language?