“So, do YOU speak a second language?” Bilingualism myths and misconceptions

Just last weekend (Nov. 15-17 2019), I had the great opportunity of attending the London Language Show at Olympia. I was there as a member of the University of Edinburgh’s Bilingualism Matters (BM) research and information centre. During the event, I was able to discuss all sorts of aspects of bi- and multi-lingualism, by engaging with hundreds of language enthusiasts – be they language learners, teachers, bilingual parents, bilingual kids, and so on.

Many were the why-is-bilingualism-good and how-can-I-teach-my-kid-language-X kinds of queries, but this one question really set me off on a journey of linguistic inquiry and self-reflection. Needless to say, this is what led to the present blog post – or shall we say linguistic-y rant? Now, let’s start from the beginning.

During my second day at the event, this middle-aged Englishman approaches our BM stand. He starts telling me about his views on languages and language learning. At first, he seems of the opinion that languages open doors, and that language learning is good for you. Yay! – I’m thinking – we’re on the right track. Unfortunately, that’s exactly when he adds he’s too old to become (verbatim) “truly bilingual”. When I ask him what he means, he says he’s simply past the time you can learn languages well. “Well, as in, just like a native speaker”, he explains.

The Critical Period Hypothesis

To my ears, that person’s words clearly echo a much-debated theory in language-acquisition research: the Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH). CPH supporters believe that, provided sufficient input, a person can master a native language only in their early years. By extension, this theory leads to the very common idea that younger = better when learning a second language, too. Although there are many issues with the CPH (which I don’t aim to fully cover here), the main counter-argument is that many learners do, in fact, become fully fluent in a second language learned in adulthood. What’s more, factors such as attitudes and motivations for learning a language affect learners’ outcomes – and, in some cases, these factors are more important than the age at which learning begins.

Bilingualism myths and misconceptions

I tried to reason with the man, as notions such as “true bilingualism” and “native speakerism” are more problematic than one may think. For a start, bilingualism is not a black-or-white concept; rather, it is as continuum which takes into account different degrees of command of the two languages. People are raised bilingual (for example, when parents speak a different language from the community they live in) or learn a second language after they’ve previously mastered their mother tongue (i.e. sequential or late bilingualism). It doesn’t really matter when you pick up a second language: for you to be bilingual, all that matters is that you speak more than one. Crucially, some of the benefits associated with bilingualism are not exclusive to speakers who are bilingual from birth, but can be found across language learners of different age groups.

The last issue I’d like to touch upon is that, as the man’s words suggest, oftentimes bilinguals are mistaken as the sum of two monolinguals – when, in fact, they are not. Bilinguals use their languages in different contexts, with different people, for different goals. As a consequence, it would be impossible to be bilingual and have the exact same command of both languages – i.e. the “true bilingualism” the man I met spoke of, or balanced bilingualism, as researchers call it. In brief, all bilinguals have different commands of the languages they speak – and that is absolutely okay.

“So, do YOU speak a second language?”

At the end of our conversation, the attendee acknowledged my responses and asked: “So, do YOU speak a second language?”. This is when I smiled and replied: “Yes, the one we’re speaking in!”. Because of my (seemingly authentic) American accent, English speakers often mistake me for a native speaker of the language. However, I didn’t grow up with English as my first language, but with Italian. I only started speaking English everyday when I studied in the US for a year (PS: read here if you’re interested to know what happened as a result of that!).

In the end, if my attempts to disprove some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding bilingualism weren’t successful, I at least hope my answer to that Englishman’s question did the trick.