As the above video shows, everybody’s got a different opinion. For some, being bilingual means being able to communicate effortlessly in two languages, even if one was learned later in life and communication takes an occasional detour. Others take error-free grammar and perfect pronunciation as the benchmarks. And it’s not just we mere mortals who are divided, scholars are equally split because the criteria and measurements are simply too vague and varied to settle on any one definition. From this, we can at least draw one conclusion: Bilingualism is a relative label, a question of degree rather than dichotomy. It’s also a fundamentally subjective phenomenon, one that is first and foremost felt.
Languages are not inanimate objects, to be acquired once and then kept in the dusty storeroom of the mind. They are living things that capture our imagination and define our reality: Language, emotion and identity are tightly bound together. It may be that somebody speaks a language perfectly from childhood yet still doesn’t see herself as bilingual because she doesn’t live in that country and doesn’t feel in touch with the culture, humor and social signifiers. Others see themselves as bilingual from the moment they feel able to express themselves without restraint or hesitation.
Yet for the purpose of this article, let’s settle on a common definition: Bilingual people are those who grew up speaking two languages and are able to switch effortlessly between the two. If we take this as a starting point, we can ask the question: What particular psychological characteristics are found in these people? Or put differently, how does the bilingual brain work?
We are going to continue the discussion on this subject, so keep connected to our blog!