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Define Bilingual v2.0: Why You Are All Wrong!

Define Bilingual v2.0: Why You Are All Wrong!

How Do You Define Bilingual?

Catchy title, eh’? Well, the truth is you’re all wrong… and you’re all right. You see, what I’ve learned over the past few weeks of doing this investigation into how people define bilingual as a word and lifestyle is this: everyone has their own definition. Most definitions are similar; some better than others (in my opinion!). The truth is, each person has to decide what it means to them to be bilingual… they have to ask themselves how they ‘define bilingual’ on a personal level. That is the really tricky part.

My personal definition is self-serving.. naturally. I believe that if a person can communicate reasonably well in a language outside of their native language then they should be considered bilingual. Reasonably well, in my opinion, would be to basically live in that language and not be lost more than 5%-10% of the time. Normal, every day communication (which is a HUGE spectrum of things) should be second nature to some degree and almost anything in the entire world should be communicable albeit with wrong words and things like it’s-like-when-you-sit-down-on-a-chair-but-with-no-chair instead of using the word ‘squat’ because you don’t know or can’t remember the word in that moment. I call these workarounds. Very important for the language learner.

If you define bilingual in a different way – that’s ok! Don’t, however, try to push your definition on others. Everyone has their reasons for how they define bilingual as a word and as a lifestyle.

I recently did a guest post on another bilingual blog and got a ton of response as to what individual people thought of their definition of bilingual. I also did a poll on my Facebook page and received a comment or two on my last post on bilingualism. I wanted to aggregate all of the various meanings by people who are, for the most part, actually bilingual. It’s easy for a monolingual to write that someone needs to be perfectly fluent in two languages to be bilingual but that just isn’t reality by any stretch of the imagination.

Here’s what our wonderful little community produced:


I can definitely agree with that attempt to define bilingual, although I would expand on it a little bit. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been raised in a language to speak it well.


I love this question from Olga who blogs at European Mama. This is one of those definitions that is wide enough, and narrow enough, to really work in my opinion.

Now For The Poll

In the poll, interestingly enough a lot of people, over half, checked the equal, native-like fluency box. That really shocked me. It’s tough to understand the vast discrepancy between ‘raised in two languages from birth’ and ‘equal native-like fluency.’ This one I’m not getting, but alas these are the results. Most of the people who filled out the poll,facebook-bilingual-poll I assume, were from the multicultural and multilingual groups I’m in on Facebook as well as people on my Facebook page. The vast majority of the people in those groups are bilingual, therefore I can only assume the poll was filled out by a vast majority of bilinguals; making me further scratch my head.

Regardless of how I define bilingual, the bottom line, and greater point, is to get as close to your definition of bilingual, or beyond it, as you can. If you’re goal is to be perfectly fluent in two languages, then strive for that. If you just want to be able to converse, beat that by as much as you can. If you need to learn for any specific reason, define bilingual in that way. The point is, action is king. People like me can sit around all day long and write about how to define bilingual but the only thing that takes you from where you are to somewhere closer to wherever bilingual is will be action! Take it today and rewrite your definition.

Language and culture are intrinsically tied together. You can’t have, for example, the Mexican language without the Mexican culture. It just won’t work. It’s too hard to separate them. You will be able to for a while, but sooner or later you will have to learn one to learn the other. It’s the same in South America, India, Switzerland, and wherever else you can think of. Learn a language, meet a culture, find a new you.


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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.

5 comments… add one

  1. Olena

    Wow, the result is definitely shocking! Despite the fact, that a person who speaks two languages with equal fluency is extremely rare individual, many people see it as the only way to be called bilingual. Unfortunately, that is why many parents drop teaching their kids second language: the child does not meet the “standard” definition – why to try? Great poll, Jeffrey!
    Olena recently posted…What To Do When Your Child Speaks With an Accent?My Profile

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      I know – I was pretty surprised by the results. Oh well – that’s the way certain people see it however I agree with you in that we shouldn’t base our child’s development or language skills on perfection in both languages.. that’s just silly! They need to have good input in at least one language so they develop normally… anything after that is a total bonus and a great benefit.

      1. Olena

        Agree! Progression, not perfection.
        Olena recently posted…Bilingual Reading Balance for Older ChildrenMy Profile

  2. Sadie

    I think I have a fairly unconventional outlook on it as I was raised by English-speaking parents in Wales. My parents were adamant that my brother and I would learn Welsh and so sent us to Welsh-medium pre-schools and schools. I learned to speak in English first, but then to read and write in Welsh at school. I would slip seamlessly between English at home and Welsh at school. Added to this, my mother spoke some French to me.

    I think it has had a profound effect on me – I have been able to pick up languages easily (I now speak French and Spanish to a fairly good level) and I have found a musical ability (apparently due to the development of a “good ear”).

    I think bilingual education is vital, especially in the very young. Never again will your brain be so well adapted to absorbing information.

    1. Jeffrey Nelson

      Awesome! This is exactly the kind of result parents look forward to when raising bilingual children. That’s fantastic you’ve seen such great benefits in many different areas of your life. Thank you for sharing :)

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