True bilinguals

8 July 2009 at 4:42 AM | Posted in News | Leave a comment

Many linguists doubt if there is such a thing as a “true bilingual,” defined as a native speaker of two languages. Sarah Shin explains why the doubt exists: “There are many myths surrounding bilingualism that are particularly damaging to HL [Heritage Language] development. One such myth is that a bilingual is two monolinguals in one person. It is often assumed that ‘true bilinguals’ are those who are equally fluent in their two languages, with competence in both languages comparable to those of monolinguals of those languages. In reality, however, bilinguals will rarely have balanced proficiency in their two languages. Terms such as ‘full bilingual’ and ‘balanced bilingual’ represent idealized concepts that do not characterize the great majority of the world’s bilinguals. Rarely will any bilingual be equally proficient in speaking, listening, reading or writing both languages across all different situations and domains.” (“The Role of Parents’ Knowledge about Bilingualism in the Transmission of Heritage Languages,” 2003).

The non-linguist Thomas Jefferson’s remark that “No instance exists of a person’s writing two languages perfectly” simply points to the prevalence of this myth.

For a literary critic, the question of true bilingualism (or true multilingualism) is irrelevant. A writer does not have to know how to speak or listen to a language to write it, or more precisely, to use words or sentences from it. What the writer has to know, however, are the sounds of the words (idealized sounds, not necessarily the sounds that native speakers make, since native speakers have dialects or idiolects like everybody else in any language), especially when writing poetry. Literary critics, then, do not have to get entangled in the debates about true bilingualism. Writers can be multilingual without being “true bilinguals” or “true multilinguals” in the linguistic sense. (Linguists do not even talk about “true multilinguals.”)

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