To be or not to be bilingual

To be or not to be bilingual | Sumeria + Akkad


I knew my first post had to be about bilingualism and what it means to be a bilingual person. As I said in my introduction, Sumerian and Akkadian formed a symbiotic bilingualism that went both ways. Following the same concept, English and Spanish also make up a symbiotic relation. I am not referring here to what people call Spanglish. That has to do to more with code switching*. I am referring to the proximity of two languages by geography; that is what I mean by “symbiotic bilingualism”, and it is bilingualism in the sense that is actually spoken by people, millions of them.

Instead of bringing you the science or plane linguistic theories; I will retell what has meant to be a bilingual to me and how, I think, I became a bilingual. I started with the idea that bilingualism is a “symbiotic relation” and that is what happens consciously and unconsciously when a bilingual individual grows in a setting where two languages are spoken. The United States, Canada, are examples of places where this happens by the thousands and there’s plenty of academic literature written about that kind of bilingualism. It represents to me situations where direct contact bilingualism develops. However, little is published about how it is like to learn two languages or more when the individual grows up in a place where the language contact is more of an indirect one.

Many other “native” languages are spoken in Mexico besides Spanish but like most people in urban areas, I grew up to learn Spanish as my native language. Spanish so is the common language for school and business, the “official language” if you like that term.

Monterrey is located two hour drive south of Laredo, Texas. The influence of English from U.S. commerce and culture is even greater than in the border town of Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side. At least, that’s the way I felt it when I was a child then a teen learning a new language. And thus the contact between Spanish and English is an indirect one in my hometown.

My exposure to English started by listening to it all around me on TV and the radio. By age six or so I became more intrigued by the songs my sisters would play on the record player at home. I was astonished at listening to my sisters’ singing of the songs in that strange language. Obviously, I did not understand a word of what was being said or sung. I was in elementary school in first grade and I had already been through part of first grade, scaled back to Kindergarten, and placed back in first grade. I did NOT like it. I excelled in Kindergarten and rushed back to first grade to learn to read Spanish fluently and almost effortlessly.

The acquisition of the first or native language occurs by stages. There is one stage when the infant listens to adults mainly, mom or dad. There’s the next stage when the infant starts to utter sounds in an effort to speak, and there is a stage when the toddler finally speaks with meaning and is able to communicate. But I said I was not to be boring with the science of it. Suffice to know that in “true” bilinguals the acquisition of the two languages occurs simultaneously. It is important to say here that under this last concept, I am not a “true” bilingual or at least I wasn’t one at an early age.

Much is debated among linguists about the limitations of young adults or adults to learn a new language. I am not in full agreement with those theories for different reasons I am not explaining now. It is enough to say that those theories did not apply to the way I became fully bilingual. English as a subject in Secundaria, Mexico’s Middle School, and preparatory school was sufficient to me to get a glimpse at what it was a formal instruction of a foreign language, English in this case. Somehow I had already acquired most of the “English code” needed to speak the language. But how and most importantly when did I acquire English? If apparently I didn’t grow up in a setting where two languages are actually spoken at the same time by mom, dad, and relatives.

I’ll, at this point, go back to the time I was learning to read Spanish. I excelled at it and read everything I had on sight with words in it. Every time I went out with my mom to do errands I took the opportunity to read signs of all kinds, labels, advertising, etc. To say that I even “read” advertisements in English is not to exaggerate my point since I read the words though I did so in Spanish. This takes me back to the stages of language acquisition. The first prerequisite for the acquisition of a language is to learn the code of that language. Infants do this unconsciously and “true” bilinguals do so for the two languages they are in contact with. But they do so by stages and the listening stage is not only the first stage but a prerequisite for the following stages when attempting to speak and actual speech develop. According to Chomsky and later Charles Yang, speakers of one language “unlearn” the structures of other languages in order to learn their own. I would say “true bilinguals” keep the structures of both languages in contact when they learn to speak.

As I said, I wasn’t a bilingual child then. What happened, I believe, is that I had already acquired the English code by listening only. This code somehow was stored in my brain and kept there for later usage when it was necessary. And so through, the only formal instruction in English I had through Middle School and Preparatory, I acquired the written structure to complete the set of stages needed for learning a second language.

It is fair to say this bilingualism I developed, save for the listening stage, did not occur unconsciously and almost in its entirety as it happens with “true” bilinguals. It happened in a delayed way when a child, me, who has already passed through all stages of the native language acquisition process, goes through the listening stage in the second language in a broken sequence where this stage is “stored” when it is not immediately followed by the speaking stage in the same second language. Obviously, I went through learning reading and writing in my native Spanish, and in this way those two stages were not directly needed in a young adult who learned a second language. As a teenager, I did not learn to read or write English, I transferred the English code I already had in store to reading and writing in that same language.

I did not become a bilingual by just transferring the English code. It took years of constant practice in reading and writing to become a real bilingual person. And yes, I dream in English now, I have for the past 15 years or so. Later I became a bilingual academic by getting a comparative linguistics degree but I am not extending any longer on this post that has turned into an article.

I will say though that what I relate here is part of a linguistic theory I have been developing for years after graduating as a linguist in Mexico. It will take tons of academic research to prove it or disprove it; and to write the boring words too, I have. I will therefore omit the conclusion since it has yet to be published in an academic journal. Or at least that’s my goal.

And that’s how I became bilingual.



Published by J.J. Del Mar on Sumeria + Akkad, Language and Culture



*Code switching is the ability by bilingual individuals to switch back and forth from language to language mainly unconsciously though this also happens at will and it depends on the situation.