Am I bilingual? Yeah, kind of.



Having completed a module in bilingualism for my course, it got me thinking about whether I myself was a bilingual, and if I could ultimately claim that my choice of degree was indeed credible given that eve-ry sin-gle time I am asked what course I study, I often get confused replies assuming I must speak other languages. It goes something like this:


Person: So, what do you study?

Me: English Language and Linguistics

Person: Cool, do you speak any another language(s)?

Me: No (laughs knowingly of expectations)


Most people would define a bilingual as an individual who speaks two languages. Fluently, for that matter, right? This notion is really what theorists call a “balanced bilingual” – which has proven to be very unlikely in realistic terms because bilinguals are rarely equally fluent in both languages in every single topic discussable.

However, “passive bilinguals” are different. They often have the ability to understand a language but not speak the language i.e. produce meaningful sentences in that language. Strangely enough, this is not an unusual thing. I am a passive bilingual, by definition. English is my first language which I can speak, read and write in but I have a profound understanding and comprehension of a dialect of a language called Enuani Igbo, my parents’ native tongue. Now, I cannot speak Enuani Igbo fluently at all but my conversations with my family usually consist of an interaction between both languages. My parents may speak Enuani Igbo, and I reply in Standard English, or a may give short Igbo replies, mostly Igbo “backchannels” and “fillers”.


I had always always always thought that I was a monolingual (someone who only speaks and understands one language) because of the widely accepted definition that a bilingual must speak all the languages they know fluently, and in the extreme case, write, read and understand in all they languages they know. So learning about passive bilingualism, in a way, reconstructed my identity. I have more knowledge of the entire dimension of bilingualism and the many variables that affect the phenomenon. According to the field, it is most likely that I understood both languages during childhood and then as English began to be spoken more at school and in other forums, knowledge of Enuani Igbo worsened.

While I hope I can one day speak my second language fluently, I can now say I am a (passive) bilingual/former monolingual.


New conversation:

Person: So, what do you study?

Me: English Language and Linguistics

Person: Cool, do you speak any another language?

Me: No (laughs). But I am considered a passive bilingual I understand another language which I can’t speak entirely fluently.

Person: Okay interesting


(This may well make you rethink your ‘language’ status!)



See for more information: Romaine, Suzanne (1995), Bilingualism (Oxford: Blackwell).

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