Are we bilinguals?

For a long time, I’ve held lofty goals for my kids and for myself. I wanted us to all be “completely bilingual,” which I defined as nothing short of 100% fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehension. I dreamt of accent-free French for my kids, and for me – maybe every tenth word or so would hint that I’m not French and give me a sexy, subtle accent that would earn exclamations like, “Oh, your French is so beautiful! Where’d you learn to speak it so well!” or “Don’t lose the last eensy-teensy accent you still have, it’s so adorable.”

That’s what you get when you’re type A. And have a husband who meets this “completely bilingual” criteria (albeit with a bit more of an accent. Ooh la la.).

My views have evolved. Matured? Grown more realistic? And while at one time I might have seen this as giving up, now I see it this way: we’re still pursuing something pretty awesome. I’m just more sane.

“Bilingual” means different things to different people. We’re certainly not monolingual, but we also haven’t attained my previous definition of bilingualism. So what does that make us?

All of us understand most of what is said to us in French. My kids spontaneously speak the language, sing songs, and watch cartoons in French. When thrown into a situation with people who speak only French, I don’t hesitate to use the language, and I’d say I’m pretty adept at expressing myself. My kids are at the point where they are able to use full sentences in French without needing prompting. Perhaps the most important thing: we are actively working on improving our language, every day, and have no plans to stop this work.

So I’ve decided to give credit where credit is due. Next time someone asks me if we are a bilingual family, I’m going to say, yes. Yes, we are.

15 thoughts on “Are we bilinguals?

  1. I had exactly the same lofty goals for my kids as well, but, like you, I’ve had to adapt. My kids are so totally surrounded by French here in Québec that some times it can be a real struggle to get them to speak English to me. They just don’t have enough exposure to English as all their Friends, teachers etc are francophones. I tell myself that, as they understand everything that I say to them in English, as they get older, they will want to speak more English, watch English films, tv and listen to English music. So we are not “completely bilingual”, it’s more of a “work in progress” and I’m happy with that….for the moment!

    • Yes – works in progress for all of us, I believe. For you, perhaps it will be easier. For English as a first language people, motivation can be more difficult as English can get you by so easily most places. Having French family and friends helps to motivate – after all, we need to be able to communicate with them!

    • Funny – my husband, a native of France who moved to the US at age 23, finds that when he has to work – he’s a software engineer – in French, he doesn’t know a lot of the vocabulary. All his working life has been spent in English. So does that make him not bilingual? I’d say no, of course not, but a strict definition might disagree!

      • Bilingual and fluent. I see it as bilingual you learn as a kid. Fluency you learn as a second language! I remember when I worked for a language school in France, a workshop with a language expert. To him, the kids he taught walking the corridor speaking French with their friends, see him and switch perfectly to English like it was the normal flow of the conversation was fluency and bilingual. He was also one of those that if you really want to learn a language, live in the country, absorb the culture, slang, formal and informal speech. So I’ve not idea where your husband falls into!

  2. I still hesitate to call myself Bilingual in French. I would definitely say I am fluent, because I can really talk about most anything, even if I still make mistakes here and there… but I definitely could not take engineering or science classes in French, or math, etc!

    At the same time, language is always growing and changing, and it’s so important to stay up-to-date with current language trends on the internet and in real life!


  3. Bien sûr!, you are part of bilingual family! And you work as a French teacher–you couldn’t do that if you weren’t bilingual. I think we can be bilingual without being “fluent.” ACTFL, the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages, has developed a set of descriptors of each level of language knowledge from “novice” to “distinguished,” with “low,” “mid,” and “high” gradations for some of the levels:

    I’ve often wondered where I would fall along this continuum, but I’ve never been assessed by someone trained in the “OPI” (oral proficiency interview). I do remember one of my professors pointing out that even some native speakers would not qualify as “distinguished” or “superior” according to these guidelines, simply because they can’t speak extemporaneously and eloquently on every possible topic (like your husband’s unfamiliarity with engineering terms in his native language, or my semi-vegetarian self’s cluenessness when it comes to talking about red meat).

    I clearly remember a time when some of my fellow graduate students in TESL/TEFL and I were being considered for teaching assistantships in our university’s Intensive English Program; one very smart man from Spain, a novice teacher with great promise but also a thick Spanish accent, was immediately disqualified because he was not a native speaker of English. It seemed so unfair. Yes, he had an accent, but he also had an intimate knowledge of how people learn English as a second language and he was skilled at explaining it!

    I wondered if I were the American in France trying to get a job teaching French to other foreigners if I would experience the same discrimination. My accent immediately identifies me as an American. But in the ~15 years since then, I have come to terms with the fact that my French will never be flawless (unless I can talk my family into spending a couple of years abroad). My French is not native-like, but it’s pretty fluent, and I’m definitely bilingual. Toi aussi!

    • Merci, Sarah! Those guidelines from ACTFL are interesting – it would be fun to be tested to see where we are at! Too true, that even native speakers could often not be considered Superior or Distinguished: we all have areas of the language, as you point out, that we are expert at as well as areas where we are as lost as a person who barely speaks the language might be! I’m taking a class this Maymester at CU Boulder with a woman who is a professor in the English department, and she hails from Belgium. Her English grammar is flawless and quite eloquent, her accent is mostly Oxford English but a French accent does slip in there from time to time. She’s an expert on the language, and on literature – her subject, yet I wonder if she’s experienced discrimination trying to find a tenured position in English departments here in the US because of her non-native status?

      The class is fabulous – franco-belgian bande dessinée. Intense trying to cram a semester’s worth of material into 3 weeks, but at least the subject matter is fun!

  4. I would definitely consider your family bilingual! Perhaps not fluent for some of you, depending on the definition but still I am impressed with how much you have done.I am aiming towards defining my family as bilingual with my definition being: we run our daily lives in both languages regularly and we consistently word toward improving our french (the non-dominant language). I hope to make some serious progress this summer!

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