Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bilingual and Monolinguals

You know, I think the biggest mistake any of us make is trying to compare apples and oranges. Many people try to compare their language abilities with monolingual standards. Yes, bilinguals may have less vocab (in each specific lang., but more in both) , different pronunciation (not that pronunciation means anything if communication is achieved), and interference (well, this goes to the degree of control). But, they also have a capacity deal with situations that exceed anything a monolingual can cope. Unfortunately, bilinguals are not accepted for what they can do, but are judged by what they can't. This is done by everyone, even bilinguals themselves. "I am not good enough." I always here my students say... Can you ever be? We often set unrealistic, or unachievable standards, and compare ourselves to what we believe is right. Can we communicate? Is our communicative ability making it difficult to get our message across? Even if we have those difficulties that you say, does it mean that you are any less capable than a monolingual?

Which would I prefer? Of course, I would like to have complete control and a high degree of proficiency! However, recently I have come to notice...
1. Monolinguals don't always have complete control themselves (George Bush a case in point)
2. Bilinguals who are put into a situation of having to use their weaker language, often have to contend with everyone judging them (using unrealistic standards). Why does a bilingual have to be letter perfect, all the time?
3. My fellow Japanese/English speaking (Japanese dominant) coworkers seem to feel that they have to be perfect English speakers around other English speaking coworkers (including pronunciation). However, their level of English almost always surpasses my Japanese ability, yet they feel like they are deficient in some way. I am always in awe at the level of discussion (in English) they are able to participate in.
4. With my own limited bilingualism (closer to the incipient, than the balanced) I am constantly doubting myself and my ability. Yet, I can always go out into Japanese cities, and I can deal with a multitude of different experiences/domains. I know there will always be someone trying to knock down my ability, by saying my Japanese is not good enough (including myself). But, at my work (YMCA) we have a saying that I also like to live by, and that is, "Yes, I can."

It seems that the ideal is to speak both languages like you are a monolingual in both, but in reality I think that most bilinguals are more than the sum of two monolinguals (I think that was in Baker, 2000)...and are likely to be more effective than monolinguals in some domains, and less effective in others...
I certainly think of bilinguals differently now. I try to see what they can do, instead of what they can't.
What do you think?


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Jill said...

Your blog is quite interesting. I agree that it is silly to expect that someone who is a bilingual to have a one-for-one match between two languages. I had a professor who studied Russian and spent several years in Russia teaching English. She said that she learned terms for fish in Russian that she doesn't know in English; however, there were many things she couldn't say. Really, I think that language and our word choices reflect our life. If we go to a foreign country to be a banker, we will likely learn many banking terms. Monolinguals do not understand how difficult it is to learn a second or third language and so they underestimate greatly the complexity of the undertaking.

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