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What Does It Mean To Speak More Than One Language?

I’ve actually been getting asked lately what it means to speak more than one language. Questions like “Do you think I’m bilingual?” and “When did you consider yourself bilingual?” Due to this peer-pressure, I went ahead and took a stab at answering this question. The results were fairly surprising…

As I mentioned, I threw up my own bilingual definition in a post on my blog. While this was pretty good, if you ask me, some people took some issue with it. I used some ideas from my Facebook page and incorporated them into the blog. Due to the comments, and discussion that followed, I decided to run a poll for a while and see what the masses think.


speaking languages multilingual versus monolingual

photo credit: zinjixmaggir via photopin cc

What influences our idea of what bilingual means?

Various elements of culture play into how we perceive things. Where we grew up, who we hung out with, what our parents did, how we were treated in society, our education level, and so on. For example, if you grew up black in the United States in the 1960’s, your ideas and experiences are going to be different than mine. Similarly, although significantly less so, if you grew up in North Dakota and didn’t speak a second language until you were an adult, your concept of what bilingual means is going to be different than someone who grew up speaking two languages from birth.

This doesn’t necessarily mean one is right and one is wrong. There is no cut-and-dried, black-and-white, i’m-right-you’re-wrong solution to this problem; only the subjective.

The Webster dictionary states the following:

“using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency”

As discussed in my post, I dislike this definition. Perhaps I’m naive, or biased (definitely biased!) but I think this definition falls short for a few reasons.

  1. It is impossible. It’s a scientific fact that two people cannot speak two languages at the exact same level. If you think I’m wrong, prove it… ūüėČ
  2. It’s ambiguous. What does ‘equal fluency’ mean? Do the vocabularies have to be the exact same size? If I know 25,000 words in English and 23,000 words in Spanish does that mean I’m not bilingual? If it doesn’t, then where is the cut off?

In order to add any real value to this debate, we need to get the opinion of the masses. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which definition you believe or which dictionary you worship; bilingualism has many faces. Some people are perfectionists while others exaggerate their own abilities. Either way, a person has a right to self-proclaim their bilingual independence!

What do you think? Comment below for your definition of bilingual and I will include it in my poll. I plan on writing a comprehensive part 2 to the debate on what it means to be able to call yourself ‘bilingual.’

About the author

Jeffrey Nelson

Jeffrey Nelson is a bilingual husband, father, and author who writes about raising a bilingual child as a non-native speaker, bilingualism in general, bilingual countries, and notable bilingual people at LivingBilingual.com. He married his Mexican princess and embarked on his bilingual journey about four years ago. He currently lives in the Midwestern United States with his wife and their child, Liam.

Permanent link to this article: http://growingupbilingual.com/2013/bilingualism-and-disabilities/what-does-it-mean-to-speak-more-than-one-language/


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  1. Erica Ardali

    My ex spoke French and English. He was West African so technically he spoke French, English and a native language. I told agree with you. His French was awesome when we first met but from speaking only English at home and work he started to lose some of it and the native language was always spoken, he never learned to write it.
    Erica Ardali recently posted…Celebrate National Cremesicle Day with Passion PartiesMy Profile

  2. Paula - Growing Up Bilingual

    I agree that we can not speak two languages at exactly the same level, this even changes during our lifetime. I think that as long as you can communicate verbally in two languages, without having to use the translator app on your phone, you can be considered bilingual.
    Paula – Growing Up Bilingual recently posted…National Immunization Awareness Month: Why the Flu Vaccine is a Back To School EssentialMy Profile

  3. Chris Roth

    I agree, there is no such thing like an exact definition. It is basically the same question like when to call yourself a polyglot?!
    With regard to your question, I would say it is every person who has to decide for themself if she or he considers her- or himself bilingual. As you mentioned some people are perfectionists and other are just fine if they can have a normal conversation. Therefore the definition of biligual might me goal-realted, too.
    Best regards,
    P.S. Nice articles, I am more than happy to share (although my main audience is German ;-))

  4. Adriana- Hogar-Mujer

    Estoy de acuerdo que no se pueden hablar 2 idiomas al mismo nivel, pero si se puede considerar bilingue quien se puede comunicar en determinado idioma.
    Adriana- Hogar-Mujer recently posted…10 CONSEJOS PARA LAVAR LA ROPA CON EXITOMy Profile

  5. Bohemian Babushka (@BBabushka)

    BB’s bilingual and deficient in both of them! ; ) I am only counting English/Spanish, because in Spanglish (which is foolishly not yet considered a true language) I am an expert!! BB2U
    Bohemian Babushka (@BBabushka) recently posted…#BeautifulLengths Dancing with Cancer & Being Bella!!My Profile

  6. dailycurlz

    Good article, I consider myself trilingual: I speak Spanish (or Dominican lol) very well if I try hard not to through in some dominicanismos; English, with my big accent and not at the same level as Spanish and French just enough to order food and say thank you, lol.. I admire those people that speak perfectly different languages.
    dailycurlz recently posted…Introduce Pumpkin into your healthy and beauty routine / La Calabaza, tu aliada de belleza.My Profile

  7. Veronica Cervera

    Yo hablo ingl√©s y se ha ido comiend un poco de italiano y otro poco de portug√©s que aprend√≠a antes, pero sigo sinti√©ndome mucho m√°s c√≥moda en espa√Īol.
    No en todas las situaciones me siento bilingue. Por ejemplo, en mi blog, me costaría escribir también en inglés, sobre todo, porque lo hago en mi tiempo libre y no sé si tendría tiempo de publicar con la regularidad que lo hago.
    Veronica Cervera recently posted…Guiso de chuletas ahumadas y quimbomb√≥My Profile

  8. Diana Rodriguez - Entre Compras y El Hogar

    Me gusta el tema, cada dia sigo aprendiendo mas ingles, y ense√Īando a mis hijas espa√Īol!
    Diana Rodriguez – Entre Compras y El Hogar recently posted…Conferencia Hispana Leadership Summit 2013My Profile

  9. Reina - Soy Mam√° en Casa Blog

    Podr√≠a ser que literalmente bilingue tenga varias definiciones sin embargo a mi manera de ver, no necesariamente debe tener el mismo nivel de fluidez en los idiomas para considerarse multilingue. Seg√ļn pienso si eres capaz de desenvolverte en otro idioma con la suficiente fluidez para poder comunicarte sin dificultad ya lo eres. Gracias me gustan mucho estos temas.
    Reina – Soy Mam√° en Casa Blog recently posted…Desayunos para Ni√Īos: Huevos con Moldes para GalletasMy Profile

  10. Natalia

    Descans√© al leer que no soy la √ļnica que no ¬®domina¬® los dos idiomas lol Si es claro que se es biling√ľe si te puedes comunicar en dos idiomas.
    Natalia recently posted…Receta sencilla de Arroz con PolloMy Profile

  11. Teresa Garza

    Bueno en mi caso me considero biling√ľe. Soy inmigrante de primera generaci√≥n y es una realidad que el 80 % del tiempo me desenvuelvo y escribo en mi primer idioma que es el Espa√Īol. Por eso me siento m√°s c√≥moda. Pero definitivamente que la pr√°ctica es lo que puede hacer la diferencia, y a Dios gracias que mis hijos manejan ambos idiomas al mismo nivel. Este hecho les ha abierto grandes oportunidades en ambos mercados, laboralmente hablando. Pero la cuesti√≥n es no perder la pr√°ctica y hablar no dos, pero la mayor cantidad de idiomas posibles, aunque tenga uno acento. (en mi caso)

  12. S. Yissele

    Yo hablo espa√Īol y llevo clases de ingles porque no se me hace f√°cil y se la importancia del biling√ľismo para mi familia y trabajo. Excelente post!

    ¬°FELIZ D√ćA!ŗ•ź
    S. Yissele recently posted…Llego Tu Hada Para el Regreso a Clases con Sorteo de $210 en Premios. #BacktoSchoolMy Profile

  13. nina

    i speak spanish and english fluently ūüôā parents always said we spoke spanish at home and english at school and extra curricular activities.
    nina recently posted…Nexxus Hydra-Light Product Line (Shampoo, Conditioner, Root Lift Mist and Leave-In Conditioning Foam) ReviewMy Profile

  14. Cristina

    Tambi√©n opino que mientras no se tenga ninguna dificultad en entender y comunicarse en otro idioma, es ser biling√ľe. Nunca se llegar√° al mismo nivel de fluidez que la lengua materna y el acento extranjero siempre estar√° presente, pero permite comunicarnos con facilidad.
    Cristina recently posted…La semana en fotosMy Profile

  15. Micheline

    I never really thought about what it means to be bilingual even though by the time I was ten, I was familiar with five languages and have since picked up another language as an adult. I would say that it is hard to be truly bilingual (“perfect” in two languages), unless you work at it very hard for years, and even then, it is something your really have to work on to keep up. It’s not like riding a bike, where it just comes back perfectly after time not using that language. Some people can project themselves as bilingual to people who don’t know the language as well, but people who are native speakers can hear things that are slightly off or not expressed in such an articulate manner as they would be with a native speaker. I speak two languages (in addition to English) with my young kids, and their dad speak to them in a different language, so they understand four languages. However, they only speak two of them consistently. The other two they don’t really speak much more than a few sentences here and there. Also, since they’re still pretty young, it is easy, but when they have more schoolwork and more activities, there won’t be as much time to keep up the languages. It will be up to them to continue one or more languages if they want to in high school or college.

  16. Blanca D

    Sometimes I wonder if I’m really bilingual. Specially since I don’t write in English as easy as I wrote in Spanish (my first language). But I think as long as you can communicate with others, then you are bilingual. We are always learning, we don’t know everything in Spanish, just as we don’t know everything in English. The best we can do, is never stop learning, keep reading, writing and listening in both languages, so we don’t forget one or another. The more we practice, the better for us.
    Blanca D recently posted…Ensalada de At√ļn sobre Canastitas de Pan BlancoMy Profile

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