On bilingualism

Ho scritto queste riflessioni mesi addietro su un forum di expat in Argentina in risposta alla domanda How did you get over the last threshold to fluency in Spanish? Ciclicamente qualcuno scrive “voglio imparare lo spagnolo” / “voglio vivere in Argentina per qualche anno affinché i miei figli crescano bilingui” / “sono qui da qualche anno ma non sono ancora fluente in spagnolo: aiuto!”. Ma è davvero possibile?

What is fluency? What is proficiency? What is nativelevel? What is your comfort threshold?

There is no strict definition. In Europe we have a framework of reference for languages to assess how much we can ‘function’ in another language. The highest level is C2, corresponding to ‘Mastery or proficiency’. You can read a description of each level by clicking on the link above.

If you have taken a C2 exam, you saw it is not hard core, you can still make mistakes but you can easily understand and be understood. This doesn’t mean you speak flawlessly and you are able to express yourself as you would do in your native language.

For example, I am a C2 in both English and Spanish, and you can see where I stand ‘linguistically’ by reading this post. I am in no way native, nor I could pass for one. I have been studying English on a daily basis for the past 20 years, but I have never lived in an English-speaking country and I don’t have an English-speaking partner. I started studying English when I was already a teenager with non-native teachers. I traveled to an English-speaking country for the first time when I was 19 years old. I don’t write/speak flawlessly; yet, I can spot mistakes in what native speakers write, and I can understand when something has been written by a native speaker or not.

But the European framework is based merely on functionality, which is far from perfection or native-level.

What is native-level? 

For me, it is someone who can think effortlessly in a language, and that you would mistake for a native. But this is just me. And there are different shades of ‘native’ speakers, from the hot dog cart guy to an English philology teacher. They are both native, yet one has a limited range of expression, makes plenty of grammar mistakes, but speaks effortlessly, dreams in his own native language, lives in its native country just like the other one.

Can you reach native-level by living abroad? 

Yes, under certain conditions, including personal factors.

Having a native parent is enough to make you native? 

No. Family only partially contribute to one’s own education, even within your native country. However, it is helpful if they make you study the grammar, expose you to authentic materials (books and newspapers and movies from the native country) etc. e.g. if they substitute the natural exposure you would have had if living abroad (going to school, attending social events, interacting with other native speakers etc.)

Can you reach a native level by attending a bilingual school? 

In my experience, you cannot, unless you a native parent at home and travel regularly to a country where the foreign language is spoken (for example, going on vacation in the US every year with your US parent(s)). You can speak great English/Spanish/German, but there would be still things that give you away as a non-native (maybe not in the first three sentences you utter, but you’ll get there, eventually). Yet, you could reach native proficiency if you moved abroad and you are young enough. High quality bilingual schools can help you reach a level where you can easily make business in the foreign language, though. But this doesn’t mean you could pass for a native or get that level of comfort you have in your native language.

Are foreign teachers at a native-level? Not at all. I have met quite a number of Argentinian teachers of foreign languages and my observations are varied. Some spoke excellently the foreign language, correct from a grammatical stand point, with a fake accent (correct by the book, but no native is ‘that’ perfect), and some slipped into Spanish sentence structure; others still sound like an Argentinian speaking a foreign language. Of course, those who have lived or studied abroad have a big advantage in this regard, regardless of their language education.

Also, you need to have an eye for these things to spot them. I am not pretending that the layman agrees with what I said. However, if among you there is a language teacher or a translator, or a professional writer, you will understand what I mean. In my experience, I have observed that here in Argentina translators have a better command of the foreign language than teachers.

What is your personal comfort level?

It is a whole different thing what one’s feel comfortable with – the personal comfort threshold. For some, it is being able to speak flawlessly the foreign language even under stressful situations or when drunk, being able to make jokes in the foreign languages, or to dream in the foreign language, or to get moved by a foreign song or book the same way I would with something in my native language. For others, is being able to go to a doctor appointment, understand what they are being said and being able to make their point and get the message across. Where you set the bar is very subjective.

I have seen people with limited language skills enjoy happily their flawed second language. These are usually people who spent a few years abroad as children. They have the spontaneity of a native speaker, but the grammar/vocabulary of a 5 years old, and unless they cultivate their second language, they are going to be stuck there indefinitely.

I have seen English native speakers living here define themselves ‘fluent’ or ‘bilingual’ in Spanish, even claiming that the only thing that gives them away as foreigners is their accent… yet, they cannot put two sentences in Spanish without making basic mistakes like gender of nouns, understanding when a preposition is needed, gender-number concordance etc. I would place them at B1, but they feel fluent and/or bilingual, nonetheless. They look ridiculous, but what do I care?

I am married to an Argentine and I ask him to correct my Spanish when I am using it for business purpose. While I could certainly manage myself my business relationships in Spanish, he always catches something… a plural/singular, the wrong register for that context, etc. He naturally ‘hears’ those things, while I have to carefully reason around them to get them straight.

I have always thought that had I attended bilingual schools in my childhood, I would be truly bilingual. Yet, since I came to Argentina and had the chance to speak to people who attended bilingual schools, I realized this is not true. They still sound foreigners, and they still make mistakes, and they don’t feel the second language as ‘their’ language like Spanish.

I had an interview in a foreign language university faculty and I was explained that people who attended a bilingual school have a B1-B2 level when they enroll at the university, so part of the syllabus is bringing them to C2. WHAT?! Ten childhood years in a bilingual school and they do the same as an adult studying the language for 3 years?! I was flabbergasted!

Native is not perfect, either

Neither being ‘native’ is the golden standard of competency. There are uneducated native speakers, and educated native speakers still making plenty of mistakes.

Expressing yourself correctly doesn’t happen by chance

I started studying Spanish about two years after I moved here because I could make myself understood, but I was limited in my active production because I doubted a lot. And when I asked to every day people, they simply said ‘it is not important, I can understand what you mean anyway‘. But that was not good enough for me. I have a higher command of my native language, and I wanted the same range of expression in Spanish. I wasn’t happy with a ‘get-by’ Spanish, I wanted to be able to make hypothesis, do complex reasoning, express exactly what I want without having to resort to different structures or workarounds etc.

Therefore, I started studying Spanish grammar meticulously, and this helped me immensely to be able to have an array of linguistic structures and tools. I also realized that Argentinian Spanish is just a shade of Spanish, and some expressions/structures are unheard of here, while are common elsewhere (I am not talking about vocabulary). Start this before you get ‘used’ to your mistakes (fossilization)!

I have also read ‘Español para dummies’, a book that aims to fix the Spanish of native speakers, and caught many mistakes that natives do. Not all natives have an interest in grammar and most people are convinced they speak correctly solely because they are native. I found myself explaining Spanish grammar to native Spanish speakers. Of course, I convinced nobody because it came from a non-native speaker…

You need to set your priorities. I really wanted to being able to switch completely to Spanish since I am given the possibility to live in a Spanish-speaking country, but I realized this would come at a cost (for me, an adult) – losing my higher command of my native language. And since I have to professionally write in my native language, I cannot afford that.
Juggling between languages flawlessly is something only a few lucky ones can do. The average person, who maybe uses several languages in their work life, can do fine with mistakes here and there. But if you are paid to write professionally, you really need flawless language skills.

That said, learning is a continuous process, for both native and non-native alike!


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