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What Is A Good Bilingual Definition? I Think I Found It…

What is the best bilingual definition you have ever heard? That’s a tough question to answer. I’ve heard a lot of definitions for the word bilingual; many of which, in my opinion, have not been quite up to par. Bilingualism isn’t something that is easily defined. It is as varied as each individual attempting to define it is. Some general principles do exist that we can apply to help carve out the best bilingual definition ever heard.

Shrouded in darkness, cloaked in mystery, the true meaning of this word came up in a question someone sent me via private message on Facebook. He explained his situation, and asked me whether or not I would consider him a bilingual. This got me thinking about what people truly think the word bilingual means. So I turned to the experts a bunch of bilinguals! I asked for a good bilingual definition on my Facebook page (like us to get in on this fun action!) and got a varied response which you will see below. First, let’s check out what Mr. Webster says about being bilingual.

Bilingual Definition #1: Webster Dictionary

Definition number two is the one we want to be working with.. it states:

…using or able to use two languages especially with equal fluency…

I like almost everything about this definition except the word ‘equal.’ It taints everything. Nobody speaks any two languages with ‘equal fluency.’ I don’t even speak my own language, English, with ‘equal fluency’ from day to do. While technically splitting hairs, it’s true. Some days I’m more verbally varied than others. When I’m tired, distracted, stressed, or just not talkative I can be quite a bit less eloquent than other times in English. How could I ever possibly aspire to speak English and Spanish with ‘equal fluency.’

Bilingual Definition #2: The More Practical Definition

On my Facebook post I received some great comments. Olga from Europeanmama stated the following:

bilingual definition

I love how Olga says that she was relieved to realize she didn’t have to be equally fluent in each language to be considered a bilingual. In my opinion, that is a part of the bilingual definition we have to get right.. and it must be included.

Another great comment came from Olena who blogs over at BilingualKidsRock:

bilingual definition

My favorite part of this comment is how she states bilingualism is not a destination, it’s a journey. When you learn a language, even if it’s the easiest language to learn, it’s going to be a process. That process is never finished. Think about it… do you know every word in your native language? English has some 750,000+ words and the average college-educated American has a passive vocabulary of somewhere around 30,000. That is less than 5%.

The Bilingual Definition Conclusion:

Almost anyone can come up with a makeshift bilingual definition. While that doesn’t make them wrong, it doesn’t make them right either. Each individual will have their own bilingual definition. This is a good thing. Measuring language, language learning, fluency, and various other things that are highly subjective is close to impossible. If you have a desire to speak more than one language, actively pursue it, or utilize more than one language on a regular basis, feel free to call yourself a bilingual. Nobody can prove you ‘wrong’… and you cannot prove yourself ‘right.’

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About Jeffrey Nelson

Jeffrey Nelson is a husband, father, author and bilingual living and working in the Midwestern United States. He lives with his Mexican wife and their son, Liam, who is currently being raised bilingual in English and Spanish.

25 comments… add one

  1. Valerie @Glittering Muffins

    Great question and answers. We are also raising our almost 4 yo bilingual (French/English) when he learned to talk it was mixed as time went by it switched to French as we lived in Quebec (French province) now that we moved across the country he’s struggling to speak English even though he fully understands it or chooses not to listen. We say he’s fully bilingual except in speaking as he answers everyone in French! lol
    Once he masters English we will teach him German as my hubby’s family is in Germany. That should be fun, lol.
    Valerie @Glittering Muffins recently posted…Kid’s Co-opMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      I love hearing from parents who are intentionally raising bilingual children! :) It’s fantastic! I’m jealous of your German side… I wish I had a third language to throw in the mix! Keep up the good work and thanks for reading/commenting.


  2. Annika / Be Bilingual

    I absolutely agree that you don’t need to have equal command of both languages – how would that even be possible as our languages evolve and we don’t use them for the exact same purposes and situations?
    Just like Olga, I never used to consider myself bilingual for the same reason. However, these days I feel very strongly that the emphasis should be on language use rather than language skills. I use Finnish, French and English on a daily basis and call myself trilingual even if I will never be as proficient in the two as in my native Finnish.

    1. Jeffrey Nelson


      My point exactly! Language is constantly evolving and flowing. Having ‘equal fluency’ is completely impossible; language is on an ever-moving spectrum it isn’t static! I also love the ‘use’ definition… I use Spanish and English every day, and while some things are literally getting easier in Spanish, I will probably never speak Spanish at the same level I speak English… but that’s ok. I still definitely consider myself bilingual.

      Thanks for your comment! :)


  3. Bohemian Babushka (@BBabushka)

    Bueno… truth be told, though many people would differ (except those truly proficient in the mother language) I am not bilingual. I speak Spanglish- that’s its’ own tongue. ; )

    Good post, BB2U.
    Bohemian Babushka (@BBabushka) recently posted…Keeping My Cool with SeaworldMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Haha. We all speak Spanglish to a certain degree :) Darn code switching :P


  4. Jeannette Quiñones-Cantore

    Muy buen tema! en mi caso puedo leer bastante en ingles in problemas pero a la hora de hablar el difícil como le digo se me enreda la lengua y no me sale nada
    Jeannette Quiñones-Cantore recently posted…Lasaña de Pollo y vegetales #RedescubretuChefMy Profile

  5. Adriana- Hogar-Mujer

    Sin dudas, coincido con Olena, ser bilingual es un proceso, y como bien mencionas vos, uno nunca acaba de aprender su propio idioma.
    Me encanto el post gracias!
    Adriana- Hogar-Mujer recently posted…VIERNES DANDO LA NOTA: WAKE ME UP WHEN SEPTEMBER ENDS {Green Day}My Profile

  6. Veronica Cervera

    Para mi también es un jorney ;-)
    Buen weekend,

    Veronica Cervera recently posted…Quesadillas de kimchiMy Profile

  7. Chris Roth

    I just have read the following quote, that reminded me of the discussion here: “From whatever angle we look at it, bilingualism is a relative concept.” That nails it for me ;-) _cR
    Chris Roth recently posted…Kommentar zu Mit der richtigen Lerndokumentation erfolgreich Sprachen lernen von Review: Der beliebte Online-Sprachkurs Babbel im TestMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Awesome! That’s great! Und ich liebe Deutsch! :)


  8. Diana Rodriguez

    Sigo aun en el proceso de aprendizaje tanto de ingles como español!
    Diana Rodriguez recently posted…#Receta: ChocoFlan de Coco o Pastel ImposibleMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Que bueno! Sigale echando ganis :) Tu puedes!


  9. Reina - Soy Mamá en Casa Blog

    Ser bilingue es un reto en verdad, cada uno tenemos nuestro propio concepto pero al final es la manera propia con que abordamos un nuevo idioma y la cultura/historia que trae consigo, me gustan tus análisis, muchas gracias
    Reina – Soy Mamá en Casa Blog recently posted…Combinaciones de Ropa: Amarillo y CaféMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      De nada! Si, ser bilingue es un reto. Haces un muy bueno punto sobre la cultura y historia… eso tambien se debe de estar incluido en nuestro concept del bilinguismo :)


  10. Silvia

    We are raising our kids bilingual as well, this is a day by day effort, but I am very proud to see that the hard work had paid off, my two sons are fully bilingual and my oldest reads and writes in both languages.
    Silvia recently posted…Crossing Paths with a Texting DriverMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      That is fantastic Silvia! Yay for you. I’m hoping I can write a similar comment in about 10 years time :)


  11. Teresa Garza

    Dar una definición exacta no puede ser tan preciso, por que me parece que implica mucha subjetividad. Cada uno vivimos el bilingüismo de distinta forma viviendo en este país. Lo que es cierto es que debemos hablar inglés para intergrarnos completamente al sistema .
    Teresa Garza recently posted…“Drinking Buddies” un exquisito brindis por la amistad entre hombres y mujeres.My Profile

  12. S. Yissele

    Bueno me encantan los idiomas pero el ingles no mucho y me toco vivir en US ;) Ahora estudio ingles y cada día aprendo más pero es un proceso constante. Mi pequeña es bilingüal porque yo le hablo solo español y toma clases de gramática y me encanta que sepa bien los dos idiomas, estoy muy orgullosa de ella a pesar de su corta edad. Me encantan tus temas realmente me hizo reflexionar y ponerle mas ganas a mis clases de ingles que me gustan tanto jejee… Saludos.

    ¡FELIZ DÍA!ॐ
    S. Yissele recently posted…Tip Holístico: Para Empezar lo que Queremos.My Profile

  13. Maybelline @ Naturalmente Mamá

    Very interesting!.. I guess it all depends on the perspective from where you are looking at it.
    Maybelline @ Naturalmente Mamá recently posted…El #KmartBacktoSchool con mucho ritmo y estilo #AdMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Very true! :) Perspective is king… especially in super-subjective things like when dealing with languages.


  14. Paula -Growing Up Bilingual

    Funny I had never thought that much about the definition of bilingualism, I agree that it is pretty subjective. Interesting discussion! :;)
    Paula -Growing Up Bilingual recently posted…The Bilingual Businessman: The Future Of BusinessMy Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      It is definitely subjective. I’m currently in the process of writing the next post rounding up as many different definitions of the word ‘bilingual’ as I can find and putting them all together with my poll results and the comments from my guest post on your page. It should be interesting to see them all together in one place.


  15. Olena Centeno

    Jeffrey, thank you for the great post! I also think it is nearly impossible to know your languages equally fluent. Usually bilingual people use their languages in different domains of life. For example, I don’t use my native Russian in professional life and as a result it is really hard for me to talk business with my Russian-speaking family. Does it mean I don’t know my native language anymore or I am not bilingual? I don’t think so.
    Jeffrey, I really liked your idea to right a post that compiles different definitions of bilingualism. Super exited to see it life!
    Olena Centeno recently posted…What To Do When Your Child Speaks With an Accent?My Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Thank you Olena! :)

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