The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Essay: Bilingualism - Not Ambilingualism

By Fiona Funke, UK/Germany (Published in Issue 8)



 Being Bilingual is great. But beware of false expectations.

 The reactions I encounter when I tell people that I am bilingual are always the same: How wonderful! What an asset to have! I wish I had been brought up bilingual! Generally I nod and smile. Yes, it is wonderful to speak two languages. It is wonderful to feel at ease in two cultures. And I certainly had an advantage at school during English lessons.

 But there is another side to bilingualism.

 For one, bilingualism is a solitary experience. Unless the person is part of a tight-knit bilingual community such as the children of expat or immigrant parents, bilingual people live very isolated experiences. Problems may not be recognised as such since they are not shared and therefore never articulated. Perhaps monolingual people would not understand – because learning a second language later in life is not the same as growing up with two – whereas fellow bilinguals with different backgrounds may not share a perspective. You will never come across a club of bilingual people who meet to discuss their issue: it matters more which languages a bilingual person speaks, how and when he learnt them, where he uses them and what he associates with them, than the actual tag of being “bilingual”. In the end, it is this background that shapes the bilingual experience far more than the simple fact of speaking two languages.

 With this lack of articulation comes a lack of acknowledgement that bilingualism, along with all its undisputable benefits, is not always a bed of roses. Many bilingual people become frustrated with the feeling of speaking neither language “perfectly” and often feel a sense of inadequacy when using either of their languages. One language might leave traces in the other, rending expressions along the lines of “I have a chicken to pluck with you” - the literal translation of the German equivalent of “I have a bone to pick with you”. Or else they might struggle to speak about a part of their life in the “other” language – a child that has learnt about, say, genetics at school in German will struggle to tell his parents about this at home in English. This is not only due to a lack of specific vocabulary. It is also because bilingual people associate each language with a certain chunk of their life. Transferring one chunk into the other language can feel strange and even cause momentary mental blockages. It is one of the widest-held misconceptions that bilinguals have a natural facility for translation and interpretation. They don’t. Rather the opposite.

 Bilingual people often feel that they do not have a full grasp on either language. They make mistakes in both, they confuse the two and they are continuously searching for words that have come to mind in the “wrong” language. Each language is limited by the constant influence of the other and bilingual persons don’t have a linguistic comfort zone to fall back on. In addition, the bilingual’s difficulties are often met with incomprehension since s/he is perceived as a native speaker, and as such is not afforded the benefit of the foreign speaker whose hesitations and mistakes are expected.

 This goes hand in hand with the cultural factor. I do not feel German in Germany and I do not feel English in England. Neither culture offers me a “safe harbour”, a secure sense of settling in and belonging. Bilinguals might be very familiar with two different cultures, but there will inevitably be elements they are unaware of. They cannot lead double lives, living all experiences equally in both cultures. But a bilingual person, perceived as a native, is not given the freedom to make mistakes. The cultural faux pas of a foreigner is humoured. That of a native is considered rude.

 This frustration at not being able to keep the two language spheres separate is based on the idea that a bilingual person is the equivalent of two monolingual persons. Having grown up speaking two languages fluently, the bilingual is perceived as a native speaker in both and feels at home in two cultures. S/he should therefore be ambilingual: able to function equally well in two languages, in all possible domains and at such a high level that no traces of one language remain during use of the other. But ambilingualism is a utopia. It is impossible to have experienced all activities and areas of interest in both languages to the same extent, to make the same mental associations in both languages, have the same emotional connection and the same linguistic expertise. It is impossible to always, in all situations, in all contexts, speak two languages equally well.

 But it is difficult for bilinguals not to measure themselves against the level of non-bilingual native speakers around them. It is difficult not to wish for their ease and eloquence. It is difficult not to wonder what it would feel like to have one language to 100 per cent rather than two languages to 80 per cent. However, this is the wrong approach to take. Bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one. Bilinguals constitute an integrated whole within a separate category, like a high hurdler.

 The performance of a high hurdler is not evaluated against either that of sprinters or that of high jumpers. He might not run as fast and he might not jump as high. Rather, the high hurdler is considered an athlete in a category of his own. And once bilinguals stop comparing their language level to that of non-bilingual native speakers and stop thinking there is something wrong with being both an outsider and an insider to two cultures, then they can finally leave feelings of inadequacy behind. Only then can they enjoy being bilingual, in a category of their own.



Fiona Funke grew up in Germany to an English mother and a German father. She moved to England for her university studies and has lived there for the past 6 years.