What Does it Mean to Be Bilingual?

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Photo by sergis blog

Photo by sergis blog

While I was registering to get the H1N1 vaccine this weekend at the local high school, the lady who was taking in the forms very politely asked if I’d rather get the information in Spanish. (I guess she’d overheard us while we were making the line.) I, also very politely, answered that it didn’t matter because I was bilingual. I don’t know if, at first, she didn’t understand me because she asked the question again. So, I repeated that either language was fine since I was bilingual. Then she smiled and said: “You’re so lucky! I wish I were bilingual,” and proceeded to give me the flyer in English.

So that got me thinking… What does it actually mean to be bilingual? As with many other subjective questions, let’s begin by establishing that there’s no right or wrong definition. I mean, there’s the definition given by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency.” But does “using” mean speaking, writing and reading? A lot of people consider themselves bilingual and they only know how to speak the language, but can’t write or read it properly.

For me, it has always come down to this: As a journalist, could I apply for a job that requires me to do research, interviews and then write a story in English and Spanish? In other words, can I write, read, understand and speak both languages well enough to succeed in the job described above? The answer is yes, not only because I believe I can do it, but because that’s basically what I’ve done since I became a journalist almost 20 years ago.

As a Latina writer who is very proud of her heritage – and I think I’ve mentioned this before – nothing would be more distressing to me than to raise children who are only able to speak my mother tongue, but can’t write it or read it. Especially the way things continue to go in this country. According to this article, bilingual Hispanics make almost 3% more money than their monolingual counterparts. Can you just imagine what the percentage will be when our children enter the workforce in 15 to 20 years?

But it’s more than that. For me, it’s a very personal thing. I can’t imagine my daughter – who I’m training to be a bookworm like her mami - reading Mario Vargas Llosa in English (kudos to those who have, but I’d be lying if I said it was the same) or my son unable to write a Christmas card to his monolingual bisabuela in Spanish.

For some reason, I tend to take for granted that, even though I was raised mostly in South America (Perú, México and Argentina), English was always a part of my life, one way or the other. Not only did I attend a bilingual British school in Perú for several years before we moved to the States, but I also lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, for an entire year when I was 10. In other words, I was exposed to English in a school setting from the time I was very little.

That is why when we moved to Miami after my fourteenth birthday, although it was definitely a culture shock for me, at least I didn’t have the added pressure of not knowing the language and having to enroll in ESL courses. As for my Spanish? My foundations were pretty strong to begin with, so I just cemented them by reading and writing as much as I could. I also used my Dad as a walking dictionary.  :)

Today, I feel as comfortable in English as I do in Spanish. Sometimes, depending on my mood, I prefer to read books in English. Other times, I’ll only read books in Spanish for a while. But mostly, I read other stuff in both. Magazines, newspapers, blogs. Same thing when it comes to writing. My life is definitely richer because of it.

Ojalá un día mis hijos puedan decir lo mismo.

I hope my kids can say the same one day.

So, what is your definition of bilingual? What kind of bilinguals are you raising your children to be? What kind of bilingual are you?

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