By Jeffrey Nelson
With only 20% of the population of the United States being bilingual (this is skewed towards large metropolitan areas; come to the rural Midwest and it's more like 5%) one of the benefits of being bilingual is that people automatically think you're a genius!
No, seriously ... they do. They automatically assume you have some super-power brain that is finely tuned to picking up the nuances of every language in the world. They look at their own language skills and cower. Their four years of high school Spanish and two years in college suddenly don't seem so poignant or impressive. You can actually see them shrink down and as they say "un poquito" when you ask them if they speak Spanish (or whatever language).
The purpose here is not to belittle anyone's Spanish or foreign language skills. Anything, including what I call the "taco burrito frijoles" Spanish is great and admirable! (If you're reading this article, it's admirable. You at least have shown some interest in a language/culture other than your own - good job!) The point is to bring to light a myth in the bilingual world and highlight how you a person can turn it into one of the benefits of being bilingual. It goes something like this ...
The general population of monolinguals, about 80% of the United States, doesn't have a clue about bilingualism ... at least in my experience. They don't understand how language works, how it's developed, or what it takes to learn one. They probably overestimate and underestimate, at the same time, what it takes to become a fairly balanced, fluent bilingual; at least when you're an adult (children have a fairly big advantage in not having to "learn" the language).
This is where it becomes one of the benefits of being bilingual.
They overestimate it due to the following:
Anyone listening to a language they don't understand has, to some degree, a little voice in the back of their mind saying "there is no way anyone can understand that! It's gibberish." Bilinguals are able to squelch that voice fairly quickly with, "that's what I use to think about language x, now I can't help but understand it." Once a person has done something before, it becomes demystified to a point, making it more feasible and therefore easier to obtain. This is one reason the third language is easier for bilingual children, but I digress. Monolinguals, however, having never conquered a language, feel that it is just absolutely outside of their realm of possibility. They think it would be impossible to speak another language, they can't even differentiate the sounds the person is making. It all sounds the same. They know the word for "to want" (querer) but they can't understand when the person speaking says it! It's impossible! This is an overestimation. Picking out the various sounds comes with time and exposure to the language. The brain is amazing.
They, at the same time, underestimate due to the following:
Someone who hasn't ever learned a language doesn't understand how much it takes to learn a language. Learning a language as an adult is difficult and it is a very conscious, intricate, time consuming process. In order to get to a very good level, where it's fairly natural and easy to fluidly express yourself in your second language, a person needs to invest a lot of time and energy. They need to get a lot of exposure. It's hard to put into words how much exposure one needs to become fluent, but that naturally depends on the level of fluency required as well. If you have never undertaken something like this, it's tough to really understand how involved it is. It's also tough to understand what it's like to put yourself out there in another language when you're not real sure of yourself.
The good news is that bilinguals can utilize this naivety to their advantage. One of the benefits of being bilingual is that as soon as people hear that they speak "another language" they become immediately impressed and automatically assume that the person is incredibly intelligent. Being bilingual has its perks sometimes, especially in the workplace. Coworkers love to be impressed by bilinguals when they aren't bilingual themselves.
Almost everybody, indeed not everybody, would love to speak another language. Unfortunately, the hard reality is that it doesn't have a whole lot to do with how smart you are. While I'm not trying to make light of anyone's intelligence, one of my favorite quotes about languages is ...
"Think of the dumbest person you know. They speak at least one language fluently." - author unknown.
That quote obviously has some logical flaws, but I enjoy it.
Yet the phenomenon that is bilingual envy is very real and runs rampant throughout the monolingual community. Almost without fail, people will hear someone speak their other language and make a remark like "Wow, you speak language X?"
Side note: Half of the time they are completely wrong as to which language is being spoken. My wife and I have been asked if we are speaking German, Russian, French, Italian, and I'm sure several others I have forgotten - we speak Spanish. From Mexico. The most common language outside of English in the United States.
When the response is, "Actually it's Spanish.. and yep, we speak it" the conversation inevitably leads to something like "Oh man, I've always wanted to speak another language. That's so cool!" or "Neat. I took four years in high school but I can't remember anything." This reinforcement that it takes four years to get to the point where you can't speak anything just perpetuates the myth that bilinguals are superhuman language learners.
The benefits of being bilingual are many and among them is the instant credit you gain from being able to speak another language. The part that's even better is you could speak very mediocre Spanish, and just do it with confidence, and the average person has no idea if you're a native or are just repeating two sentences over and over again.
I'll leave you with a quote from Spiderman directed to Peter Parker by his grandfather? Uncle? Whoever that older guy was.
"With great power comes great responsibility."
Use this power responsibly, bilingual nation.
Action Item: Go speak your language. Regardless of your level of bilingualism, get out and speak it today! Better yet, speak it to your kids. Make a fun game, name some stuff around the house, whatever. Just do it! Sign up for a free course, take lessons on skype, buy a book, do something! Don't let this benefit of being bilingual slip away!
Jeffrey Nelson writes for LivingBilingual, where you can learn more about being bilingual, and the benefits of being bilingual.
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