David Beard

Living the History of Bilingualism
By David Beard

Am I bilingual? Am I multilingual? These are questions that anyone can ponder once they can produce or comprehend more than one language. As a linguist and new faculty member in the Spanish and Portuguese Department here at Miami University, I would like to take a few moments of your time to think on the matter, and to ask a few questions that may generate further thought.

Think about your own experiences for a minute. Contact with multiple languages affects us in various ways and the type of contact influences the effect. In my case, I had contact at home with English from my dad and English and Spanish from my mom. Both my parents were born in the United States, Georgia and New Mexico respectively, and my mother’s first contact with English was at age six when she began elementary school. She identifies as Latina and my dad as White.

I grew up in California, attended school in English, took a few Spanish classes in high school, and heard Spanish being spoken often in a variety of settings. (This last experience is not uncommon in California given the fact that almost 40% of the population identifies as Latino/a.) For dinner my family would often prepare anything from frijoles, tortillas, pizza, hamburgers, enchiladas, pork chops, and sopapillas, although not all at once. During the completion of my undergraduate and graduate degrees I spent time in Spain, Chile, Brazil, and France, while traveling through another sixteen countries. These travels brought me into contact with Arabic, German, Dutch, Greek, Italian, Quechua, Navajo, Maya, Mandarin, Japanese, Romanian, Catalan, and Euskera.

The knowledge I’ve developed from my contact with these languages varies in function and mode of communication. For example, my contact with English and Spanish has been in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, whereas my contact with Maya and Romanian has been limited to verbal communication. Likewise, my use of the latter two has been in greetings and goodbyes, as well as other simple transactions, whereas I’ve expanded my use of English and Spanish beyond this to use them in an array of contexts. In both cases, I do not pretend to have equal command over each language in all its functions and modes, but I’m using languages as instruments to address my needs and circumstances. To the extent that I am successful in doing so, am I monolingual, bilingual, or multilingual?

I want to say that I am multilingual since I can produce and comprehend more than two languages, but my internal critic stops me. Don’t I need native command of each language to claim that I know it? Perhaps, but this begs the question of why I feel this sensation and where the contemporary notion of a bilingual originated. In doing some investigation, we can attribute this understanding to structuralist linguist Leonard Bloomfield. In his influential textbook Language (1933), Bloomfield describes a bilingual as “native-like control of two languages,” essentially asserting that a bilingual is two monolinguals in one mind. I would venture to say that this conceptual understanding of a bilingual is still pervasive in popular culture today. For example, it is actually part of Webster’s definition of bilingual. However, there are at least two problems that I see with it.

First, scientifically speaking, this a priori definition lacks scope and supporting evidence. The reality of the situation is that over half of the world’s population regularly uses more than one language in their everyday life, and that over 5000 languages are spoken in just over 160 countries. Each language serves its purposes and experimental evidence has demonstrated that the variability in command of each is intimately correlated to the needs of the speaker, which vary widely for many reasons. In other words, it is the norm that this command of each language is unequal. Thus, even within Bloomfield’s framework, the scope of his definition does not account for the majority of those that know more than one language in the world.

Second, this strict definition of bilingual has socio-cultural effects as well. For example, how do I define myself if I use more than one language regularly, but don’t exhibit equal command of each? Am I a monolingual? That doesn’t seem right. Yet I can instantly think of two specific cases in which this mentality has adversely affected individuals. First, heritage speakers often have linguistic and cultural command of more than one language, but comment that they are not bilingual because they don’t know each language equally. Also, many second language learners reach high levels of command in a given target language, some even assimilating to its cultures. Nonetheless, more often than not my students with this knowledge do not identify as bilingual.

Both of these socio-cultural effects are products of the influence of Bloomfield in the United States, but other countries are not without complications in regards to identifying bilingualism. For example, my friend Moses from Ghana once told me that he was monolingual. A little while later he took a phone call and began speaking in a language that I did not understand. Upon finishing his call, I asked him what language he was speaking, to which he replied, “Twi.” After a short explanation, the result was that the government had traditionally labeled non-colonial languages as dialects, essentially relegating them to an inferior class of objects as states the expression “the difference between a language and a dialect is an army and a navy.” According to this definition, Moses is a monolingual English speaker that knows four dialects. The point here is that how we conceptualize something affects our identity. Therefore, for these scientific reasons and socio-cultural examples, I would advocate that whatever new formulations we construct of being bilingual be based on empirical evidence, with emphasis on human agency and experiential / embodied knowledge.

So now that I have an idea of where my hesitation to call myself bilingual or multilingual originated, am I bilingual? Am I multilingual? Well, I am a blonde Latino from California who speaks Spanish with a Castilian accent. And although I can produce and comprehend other languages to some degree, since I use English and Spanish on a regular basis, and I feel communicatively competent in both, I identify as bilingual. What about you?