What Does Bilingual Mean?

18 Mar

“What does ‘bi-lingal’ mean?” my daughter M asked me as I dried her post-bath hair last night.

I gave her the first definition that came to mind. Someone is bilingual if they speak two languages equally well. I pointed out that the teachers at her school were all equally proficient in Spanish and English.

“Like Mrs. G always talks to Mrs. M in Spanish, and she talks to us in English!” M exclaimed.

“Yep. And Mrs. K speaks to some parents in Spanish and some parents in English. Do you speak some Spanish?”

“Yes,” M agreed. “But not much.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish yet,” I confessed, “but I do speak English, Bangla, French and Italian. That’s called ‘quadrilingual’ for 4 languages.”

Yes, pero...We live in El Paso, TX,  less than 20 miles from the US-Mexico border. There are two main communities that I’ve observed living side by side: the local Mexican-American population, and the army community, made up of soldiers between deployments and their families. The latter group is fluid, moving every year or two. Many army spouses are from countries other than the US, met during soldiers’ international travels. Spanish and English are the languages most often spoken on the street, but I hear plenty of German when I go to the girls’ school to pick them up or onto Ft Bliss, the local base. I used to hear a lot of Korean at our last base, but I haven’t noticed a ton here.

I expected that the richness of the language landscape here would lend itself to an appreciation of the benefits of bilingualism. I was shocked, therefore, to learn the there was no Spanish used in the bilingual classrooms at our daughters’ public school. In this school district, “bilingual” is simply code for “English as a Second Language” or even “Spanish monolingual.” The only Spanish-English dual immersion school programs are “on the other side of the mountain” in the more affluent Caucasian neighbourhoods to the west.

I once toyed with the idea of getting a PhD in code-switching, the interweaving of two or more languages by people equally comfortable with all the languages in use. After having lived in El Paso for 6 months, I think a more fascinating topic is the relationship between people’s language usage and attitudes in multi-lingual communities.

Although my husband and I are members of the army community, our dark skin makes us blend into the long-term El Paso community. The language use I’ve observed in local places of business has been an eye-opener. At shops that are part of national chains, the initial welcome from the staff is in English, but the next utterance is in Spanish. If the customer responds in English, the conversation switches to English. If the customer responds in Spanish, the remainder of the conversation continues in either Spanish only, or Spanish with some English words. If the customer is fair-skinned, however, Spanish doesn’t make an appearance. The contrast was noticeable when my very fair mother-in-law visited. When we go to local mom-and-pop establishments, though, conversation is in Spanish exclusively until my husband forces the issue by holding to his English, or my mangled Spanish causes the store employee to take pity on me.

I hope that my daughters learn the utility and beauty of bilingualism from their classmates before the narrow-minded perspective of the local school system imposes itself on them. I want them to know that being bilingual is a strength, and something to be admired. It doesn’t equate to not speaking English.

You’ve heard the joke, right?

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
American.

Not if I can help it.

Sadia was born in the United Kingdom to parents who were born in Bangladesh back when it was still East Pakistan. At the age of 8, she moved “back” to Bangladesh with her parents, where she lived with one foot in her local extended family culture and the other in the expatriate world. She found her way back to the life in the West pursuing degrees in California and Texas. Since that was far too simple an identity for one person, she mixed things up by marrying an American soldier of Mexican-American and Scots/Irish/French-American descent. Their identical twin daughters, M and J, are now 5 years old, and would probably identify themselves as Twin-American above all else.

2 Responses to “What Does Bilingual Mean?”

  1. DinoLingo.com March 22, 2012 at 1:13 am #

    Interesting post…
    By the way according to the book “bilingual edge” balanced biliguals are the ones who

    1. Read a newspaper article in both languages equally quickly and with equal understanding?
    2. Tell a joke or give a toast that was equally funny in both languages?
    3. Explain to their child in both languages why it is not okay to, say, bop their friend Theodora on the head?

  2. natasha devalia April 1, 2012 at 3:43 am #

    Sadia,

    Thanks for sharing your post. Always love to read the dialogues you record, both between your daughters, and between you and your daughters!

    Look forward to more!

    Nat

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