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  • Matthew Hadodo

Being Bilingual: Navigating Different Contexts

(Originally published February 25, 2015)



Bilingualism. While the name designates the ability and or state of speaking two languages, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. For example, many people speak more than two languages (often called multilingual or plurilingual or even a polyglot), but even if they only (only ha) speak two, chances are that those languages are not spoken or used in the same way.

Let’s clarify some key terms. For starters, language tends to be discussed as either learnt or acquired. Read more about that here. We often hear about having a “first,” “primary,” “native” or “maternal” language. These are all different ways to distinguish the language you naturally acquired while early in the so-called “critical period.” The fact of the matter is that you acquire multiple languages at about the same time during this phase and thus have more than one “first language.”

Regardless if you’re a simultaneous bilingual (having acquired multiple languages at about the same time) or sequential bilingual (acquiring your second language decidedly after the first), more likely than not, you probably rely on one language more than the other(s). This is because specific situations may require or favor one language or style over another. For instance, if you speak English, Spanish and Portuguese but primarily work in Brazil with Brazilians, chances are your professional language will be Portuguese. However, if you also have hobbies centered on a Spanish-speaking community, you may be using more of that language in an informal setting. Thus, your speech will reflect the way you use those languages.

This brings us to a related topic: what does it mean to be fluent in a language? Can anyone really say they have “mastered” a language, including their mother tongue? Even native speakers don’t necessarily know every last word or employ certain grammatical rules. In this regard, we can say that being able to communicate using distinct registers (formal and informal speech) is one way of gauging your ability to speak the language. As we discussed previously with fillers, someone who never uses them may be considered to be awkward or not fulfilling the norms of informal conversation. That type of pragmatic skill is just as important as (if not more than) being able to conjugate verbs or show subject verb agreement.

So what about speaking multiple dialects of the same language? Most educated people have been taught the “standard” dialect of their language in addition to any local variety they might have been born into. It makes sense that a Bostonian may adopt more “standard” aspects of speech in professional settings or when meeting people from different parts of the country, but then revert back to their dialect when in informal, familiar situations. The same concept applies to speakers of AAVE, who often are pressured into adopting “standard” speech in workplace environments to avoid prejudice.

If you speak more than one language, do you favor one over the other? What situations do you tend to use one language or dialect instead of a different one? As always, I'm curious to see your comments!

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