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7 February 2011
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"Being bilingual is like being able to see a magic eye picture. You squint a bit but still see more." Robin de la Motte, London.
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What does it mean to be bilingual?
by Philippa Law

Bilingualism is the ability to use two languages with equal fluency, and to sound like a native in both. Young children are naturally designed to acquire what ever language(s) they are regularly exposed to. Although adults can study a second language to a high, even fluent, standard, they rarely manage to avoid a foreign accent. That's why true bilingualism has to start early in life - and why you don't need to be 'good at languages' to be bilingual.

The language you speak is closely bound up with your sense of identity, and how you view the world: being bilingual can make you feel at home in a wider set of social situations, and can give you two slightly different ways of looking at things.

Even where two languages are quite similar and you can function perfectly in either of them, things feel different in different languages. Robin puts it like this: "I feel a slightly different person speaking (or thinking) German than English - like everything's slightly more focussed."

It's rare to come across people who are not glad to be bilingual. Letizia in West London says that her children "are very proud to be half English and half Mexican and to be able to speak two languages."

Web reader Sandra sees practical benefits too: "I'm quite proud of being able to speak and understand Polish, as I know it will help in the future - now that Poland are part of the EU, maybe more people will learn it."

Speaking two languages is thought to increase cognitive abilities. In other words, bilingual children often get better marks! Bilinguals are more employable, and earn more on average than monolinguals. They're even healthier in old age! A study at the University of York in Canada in 2004 suggested that speaking two languages can help keep you mentally agile. Bilingual volunteers had faster reaction times than their monolingual counterparts and were less likely to suffer from mental decline in old age.

Bethan from Llanrug believes that bilingualism for its own sake is positive: "Children who are raised in a bilingual household are proven to do better at school as well as being more tolerant of diversity and minorities. In today's climate this can only be a good thing."

New parents who are considering bringing their offspring up to be bilingual will find plenty of information and advice on the internet. The excellent Nethelp site contains a wealth of invaluable personal experience and has a guide to the different approaches.

If you're only fluent in one language and are feeling jealous, don't despair. You don't have to be fully bilingual to feel the benefits of a second language. Harpal Singh from Glasgow was inspired to learn Gaelic by the late Radio Scotland presenter, Ali Abbasi: "Learning Gaelic makes me feel more Scottish and I recommend that everybody at least tries to pick up a few words. Tapadh leibh!"

Further reading:
Growing up with two languages by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson.


Your Comments
Are you bilingual? Tell us about the advantages and possibly any disadvantages you have encountered as a speaker of two languages.

Rini from India
I am from India so by birth I have been speaking English, Hindi(national language of India), Bengali(my mother tongue), spanish ( i learnt in college) and french ( i learnt in college too). I think it is wonderful to be in the world of languages as your enhances your vision more, and the fun of knowing a culture through a language has a different taste to it. I feel it is always and advantage to know and speak as many languages as you can.

Jeanette van der Hoef from South Africa
I am studying multilingualism. In a country like ours it is almost vital to be fluent in more than one of the official languages. It helps one socially because you learn to of the other cultures and learn to appreciate them. I myself am totally fluent in English and Afrikaans and that alone has helped me get a job. With all our 11 official languages I am sure most of my country is bilingual.

Yvonne Lewis
My parents live in Spain now and I used to be engaged to a Spaniard so that's why I know Spanish. German I learnt because I discovered I had a sister who was in Germany. Czech and Polish I started speaking in Hull because of lots of handsome young men going to church on Sunday. We became good friends and I have since worked in the Czech Republic.

Kenneth Odhiambo Ouma from Germany
I think speaking more than one Language is a good experience. I speak Swahili, Luo, English, French and now am learning German. And it comes about with knowing the culture and lifestyle of the language you are learning. Because some words can be great when spoken in the particular language than when they are translated. Bilingualism will also make you have lots of friends! If you speak with a German in English, they might not reply, but when you speak in German, wow, its like magic. They want to speak to you!

DeeAn from Mainz, Germany
In my homeland, Indonesia, there are also over 300 different languages and dialects spoken, Indonesian itself and some more "traditional" languages.I was born and grew up in Jakarta, my mother tounge is Indonesian. But in the community, like at school or among friends, I used to speak English. I also took French course at school once though it didn't go well because I never used it anyway. At the age of 18 I left my parents, family and friends for Germany to study here.Now I'm able to speak three languages : Indonesian as my mother tounge, English and German. However I still need to practice my English and German more often. Many words in Indonesian are originated from Dutch, English and Arabic, that's why I'm thanking God, it's not that difficult to understand most words in English. Apart from that, my parents speak Javanese as the "traditional" language spoken in Java Island, so I do understand and can speak some Javanese words. Latin is also for the Pharmacy Students like me essential. It's nice to be bilingual or even multilingual. As for the next time, I'm planning to take either a spanish or italian or french course. I think I'm also interested in learning either Schottish, Welsh or Irish.

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