What Does Bilingual Mean to You?

What Does Bilingual Mean to You?

If we look up bilingual in a dictionary, it says that being bilingual is “the ability to speak two languages with the facility of a native speaker.” I don’t think anyone would argue much with that definition. But strangely enough, that is not always what businesses have in their minds when they ask for bilingual speakers on applications.

I had a conversation the other day and was speaking to a member of the military, who was originally from Texas, but spent some time overseas in Russian speaking areas. During his time overseas he had the opportunity to learn the language and grew to the point that he considered himself “bilingual.” When applying in Texas for a job that requested bilingual applicants, he naturally felt comfortable writing bilingual on the application. I am sure you can guess what happened. The business assumed that anyone in Texas who was bilingual was fluent in English and Spanish, although they never stated that anywhere on the application and never clarified during the interview process. When a situation arose with a native Spanish speaker that spoke no English, he was called to the front to communicate with them. Imagine the manager’s surprise when they learned he spoke absolutely no Spanish. “But you said on your application that you were bilingual!” the manager said indignantly. “I am!” the gentleman replied, “I speak English and Russian!”

In today’s world of multinational corporations and multiethnic multilingual societies, it is imperative that we be careful to ask the right questions. So again I ask, “What does bilingual mean to you?”

On another occasion I was speaking to a computer programmer who has worked with computers for many years. At one point in the conversation he was relating to me the various places he has worked and the different jobs he enjoyed. While he was sharing about the different programming languages he uses in his work, he threw out the phrase “but I am bilingual or trilingual at least, so it doesn’t bother me.” I clearly understood that he was speaking about computer languages like Java, C++, Perl, and PHP. But what struck me was the confidence with which he applied the word “bilingual” to computer languages the way I would use it for spoken languages. I hadn’t ever considered it would apply to anything else, but they are forms of language communication, albeit with computers, so who am I to pigeonhole the word “bilingual” with my own traditional perspective.

So what does “bilingual” mean to you?

Author: Christian Lingua

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