How to know you have become bilingual

October 1, 2013

Becoming multilingual

For most people that are studying a foreign language this is thequestion. It all boils down to the point when you reach bilingualism (or multi-lingualism if you already know 2 or more languages). Note: For the rest of the post I will refer to bilingualism but this also applies to people who know more than two languages

A key thing to understand is what constitutes bilingualism or in different terms, what do most people consider to be bilingual, trilingual, etc. When can you call yourself any of these terms?

There are different reasons for people learning a foreign language. Some do it because they are travelling and want to be able to communicate at a basic level. Others study the language out of passion and the desire to speak it fluently. Members of the latter group will find obstacles and frustrations along the way, but nothing short of elation is felt when fluency finally arrives. So can we equate fluency to bilingualism? In my opinion, yes.

Before moving to the U.S. I thought of myself as fully bilingual. I was able to carry any conversation in both languages (Spanish and English). However, a friend of mine once asked me the following question: “If you had to make a presentation in English in front of x number of people, would you be able to do it?” My quick answer was “yes”. In reality I knew I would not be able to.

In my experience as a language learner and a language teacher true fluency or bilingualism comes when you are equally capable of speaking of a subject in both your native and your second language. There are perhaps other “post signs” we could use to let us know we are in fact bilingual. However the one true signal in my opinion is when you start thinking in the other language. Once you start having thoughts in a different language your mind has embraced it and operates in it - [Tweet that!]. Thinking in the target language makes it easier for our minds to convert those thoughts into words. It is different from having to think about how you would say a sentence in the foreign language, analyzing it and then expressing it. This is, to me the real sign we have achieved fluency. 

Until next time!