8 things to say to a bilingual


Many bilinguals (and with this term I mean people who talk two or more languages, so including also plurilinguals)  feel annoyed by all kind of questions that refer to them being able to understand, speak, write and read two or more languages. Instead of listing up these negative examples, I think it would be good to once focus on the positive aspects of being bilingual.


1. “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?”


Plurilinguals are often also multicultural and they usually grow up very open minded. Therefore questions like “Where do you come from?” seem too restrictive and some consider them really alienating.

Plurilinguals often possess more than one passport and have lived in more than one place. Or at least they visit their passport countries on a regular basis.

They don’t need to have lived in all the places they know the language from. – “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?” always gives us the possibility to either answer it by a simple “yes” or “no”, or to start a broader discussion about where the languages are spoken around the world, how many people talk them or why we didn’t or did live in the places they’re the national language.


2. “How would you say [fill in the blank] in [one of the languages the person talks]?”


People often are very curious to hear a child (or a grown up!) talking the other languages. Especially if these are considered more “exotic”.

It’s not unusual to be asked to tell something in that other language. The only thing others don’t consider is that it’s difficult to “just say something in the other language”. – What exactly do thy want to hear? – My tip is to suggest a sentence like “Hello, how are you?” or “Hi, my name is X and I come from Y” etc. This helps the bilingual to not just be struck dump…

The positive side effect of this kind of questions is that we can point out the syntactical, lexical, phonetical differences among the languages we know. And this is something most bilinguals or plurilinguals like doing.


3. “It’s amazing how you can switch from one language to the other!”


I know that this might sound a bit too much, but many bilingual children get to hear that they surely are not as proficient in language A as in language B (and C, D etc.) and that their tendency to switch from one language to the other is a sign of weakness or that they don’t master the languages yet.

Against all those clichés or false myths see: code switching is actually a sign of great mastery of both languages, people should recognize it as a sign of mastery!


4. “You’re such a great example to (other) children!”


When children grow up bilingual, they usually not only switch languages frequently but they also change from one cultural group to the other, adapting and embracing diversity.

This is a very positive side effect and it is worth to be recognized because it gives those children a very open mindset. They usually don’t judge others by the language they speak or by the culture they come from, and they tend to be much more curious and accepting.

In this time of increasingly more global living families, this is an important asset that should be praised. – The same applies, of course, to adults!


5. “When did you learn all those languages?”


This is actually a question I’ve been asked a few times and I really liked it for two reasons: first, because I felt like the other person is interested in the languages I speak, and second, because it gave me the possibility to tell more about myself.

The conversation was not as superficial as it sometimes can be with monolinguals, or bilinguals who speak other languages than ourselves.

In fact, one person who asked me this was a bilingual herself and we ended up talking about how difficult or easy it is to learn certain languages at some point of our life, about when to start to learn an imparented language or when even it would be appropriate not to.


6. “Which language was easier to learn for you and why, except for those you learned naturally?”


This is a very intelligent question and it reflects that the other person is aware of the different level of difficulty in learning a language.

Some are completely different from the mothertongue or one of the “family-tongues” (i.e. languages spoken within one family) but this doesn’t mean that they are more difficult to learn.

Sometimes it is even easier to learn a language from a completely different language-family than one that is imparented with one we already know.

And the second part of the question shows that the person is aware of the different ways someone can acquire (=naturally learning) and learn (=at school) a language.


7. “Do you speak all those languages on a regular basis?”


Being bilingual or multilingual is hard work. Keeping up with all the languages we acquired and learned, and using them actively on a regular basis is not easy.

First, our parents need to provide inputs for us in all the languages we’re supposed to become proficient for social, emotional or very practical reasons.

And then, once we’re adults, we need to find people who speak all our languages in order to keep them active and we need to find situations where to practice those languages.

It is the challenge of a lifetime for people who want to stay bilingual! – Personally, I couldn’t imagine to live in a strictly monolingual culture, it would be too hard for me to give up one of my languages and I honestly need to speak my languages on a regular basis to feel at ease.


8. “Do you have one (or more) dominant languages?”


This kind of question is obviously not very common.

Surely nobody would ask this to a child. It is a question that linguists or people who know about linguistics would ask.

We all have one or more dominant languages, also depending on the social context we’re living in: if we need more than one language in order to interact with our environment, those will probably be our most dominant languages.

We still know the others too, but if we don’t practice them regularly, they’ll become more passive, secondary. – By asking this kind of question, people can get an idea about our linguistic situation and our preferences.


And what really should be avoided….


Even though I usually avoid telling what not to do and prefer giving positive advice about what to do, there are some really inappropriate things people can say to a bilingual person that I would shortly mention here.

First of all, one should always avoid to be judgmental.

When someone says "you have hardly any accent”. Some people might really be honestly thinking that you don’t have any accent, i.e. you really speak like a native. Others would say this just because they really think you have one. What this comment shows us is that the other person is looking for a sign that you are not a native speaker...

I want to point out once and for all that accents are not a sign of weakness or of not being proficient in a language. They just are our very personal “finger-print” and surely shouldn’t be criticized! Everyone has some kind of accent, intonation, way to articulate sounds, even in the same society.

In general, a bilingual person shouldn’t be corrected in the presence of others. If one says “You said that wrong!” shouldn’t be said to anyone. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Especially with children, the best way to correct is remodelling, i.e. repeating the same sentence in the right way without pointing out the mistake. 

One other thing that should be avoided is to compare to siblings, friends, partners, spouses etc.. We all pick up languages and speak them in our own very personal way.

We all have preferences when it comes to languages and this is as natural as having an accent or having blond or brown hair etc..

One last thing: never ask which language they prefer the most.

Every time people asked me this, I felt like they asked me to decide if I loved my father or my mother the most. – This is just impossible!


If you would like to know more on how to make sure that family and friends are more sensible about your or your children's being bilingual, contact me at info@UtesLounge.com for a 30 mins free consultation.




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