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Xiphias Gladius

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How much of a language do you have to speak to call yourself "bilingual"? [May. 25th, 2012|07:11 am]
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I've been intending to post this for a week or two, now, and I was just reminded by it by the front-page poll on LiveJournal, about "how many languages do you speak"?

I consider myself monolingual, although I know a couple words in other languages, and have a dilettante's interest in linguistics, so I know a little bit about the different ways that different languages put together grammar, and, off of my speech and rhetoric, I have a little tangential knowledge of different phonemes, including a few that don't appear in English. So I know a little bit ABOUT languages, but I don't know any other languages, themselves.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I went to Home Depot to look for a grinding wheel that I could attach to my drill, and then use to sharpen my machete, rather than using a file. It's a cheap machete, so the blade gets knicked up badly whenever I hit a rock, which is often, so I wanted a quicker way to grind out knicks than a hand-tool. The BEST tool for that, of course, would be a bench grinder, but that's kinda excessive for me to own.

So, I went to Home Depot, poked around for a bit, and then asked one of the clerks for help. I started explaining what I wanted, and he wasn't sure, so he pulled over another clerk, who actually knew the section better. The second clerk was Deaf, and the first clerk was trying to enunciate so the second clerk could read his lips, and was having trouble, and he started to pull out a pad of paper.

I stepped in, and started signing. 'Cause I know a LITTLE ASL.

Now, I used a LOT of fingerspelling, some miming, a lot of pointing at stuff. . . but he understood what I wanted, I understood what he was telling me. He was able to show me what they had, but we agreed that what they had wasn't EXACTLY what I wanted, and he suggested that I check out another store that was a bit south of them on Rte 1.

So I thanked him, and that's what I did, where I did, in fact, find something that worked for me.

It wasn't until I left that I realized that I'd just had a conversation in which I was able to express a relatively complex problem, and understand a relatively complex response. I didn't do it grammatically, nor prettily, nor entirely within the bounds of that single language (fingerspelling isn't ASL, in my mind, although there are signs in ASL that include fingerspelling forms). But I did it.

Can I think of myself as bilingual in ASL? I DON'T think of myself that way. But I DID muddle my way through.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sproutntad
2012-05-25 11:27 am (UTC)

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I have the same experience with Spanish. One of the stores that I worked at with my company was 40% tourist traffic (close to Disney) an much of that tourism was from South America, Europe or Brazil. Over a couple of years, my customers taught me how to talk about our products and tell our promotions in Spanish (and Portuguese, because it is close enough to Spanish for what I need). I now am completely fluent in my "work Spanish" to the point that I've had customers start talking about other things and get baffled when I stare at them blankly. I am definetely NOT fluent in Spanish (unless you can get around Spain only talking about body care...). I also have a deaf customer who I can sell body care to. She is a regular who I sign to, not enough to really communicate, but enough to know that I respect her enough to try. Then we do a lot of pointing and laughing bc my ASL is so bad!!
[User Picture]From: tpau
2012-05-25 12:38 pm (UTC)

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i consider myself bilingual in english and russian. i dream in both, i read and write in both, and i can do a reasonably synchronized translation. ASL is a bit different though not sure how you would do fluency in that.

i can make myself understood in hebrew and german, but i would not call it bluent...
[User Picture]From: xiphias
2012-05-25 02:01 pm (UTC)

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Isn't Russian your first language, anyway, and English is your every-day-of-your-life language?  When I think "bilingual", people like you are what I think about.</p>

Fluency in ASL is the same as any other language -- thinking in it, dreaming in it, and so forth.  I HAVE found myself thinking in ASL once when everything clicked in class, but that was only once, and I could only form very simple thoughts.

[User Picture]From: ceo
2012-05-25 02:38 pm (UTC)

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I was able to muddle my way through conversations when I spent a month in Paris years ago, but would definitely not have considered myself fluent (and even less so now).

When gosling was working at MIT's preschool, she had kids from a lot of different places, many of whom came in speaking little or no English. So she had some very basic bits of several different languages, most importantly "NO!".
[User Picture]From: navrins
2012-05-25 03:23 pm (UTC)

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I would agree with you.

In my mind, being bilingual means being fluent in two languages, and being fluent means more than just being able to muddle one's way through a limited conversation. It means being comfortable conversing in the language, being able to watch a TV show in the language or read a newspaper article and not necessarily be able to understand every word but to understand the gist of what's being said. From what you've said here, you're not fluent in ASL. You know some, which is good, and you and aren't afraid to use what you have when it would be useful, which is even better, but I think of fluency (and thus bilingualism) as a higher standard.

I don't know whether a dictionary, or a linguist, or someone who IS fluent in ASL, would agree with me.
[User Picture]From: xiphias
2012-05-25 03:25 pm (UTC)

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To the best of my knowledge, no dictionaries read my LJ, but there are linguists and people fluent in ASL who do, so, hopefully, we can get at least two-thirds of that answer.
[User Picture]From: ellettra
2012-05-25 04:21 pm (UTC)

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Very interesting topic! The same thing happened to me, but with Spanish. A guy outside a restaurant needed his car jumped. With pointing and my extremely rudimentary spanish, we managed to get the problem solved.

I wish I was multi-lingual. If I had a superpower, that would be it.
[User Picture]From: lizw
2012-05-25 04:55 pm (UTC)

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Bilingual to me means "speaking the later-acquired language as well as one speaks one's native language"; I hover around that level in German, depending on how long it is since I last spent time there (used to be at that level all the time, but after twenty-four years of living in a non-German-speaking country, most of the time I'm "just" fluent, which to me means something like "able to speak confidently without stopping to think about how to express oneself and without major grammatical errors". So from what you describe, I wouldn't say you're bilingual in ASL, or even fluent - but given what you were able to accomplish, I'd probably describe you as "competent". I'm around that level in French, and working towards it in Spanish, with a vague goal of being fluent by the time I do another Camino with boxcat in five or six years' time.
[User Picture]From: vvalkyri
2012-05-25 05:09 pm (UTC)

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Competent is a a good word. I have bilingual friends. Most of them speak with a noticeable accent, but their English is as good or better than mine.
[User Picture]From: ailbhe
2012-05-25 07:31 pm (UTC)

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Oh, that's interesting. I think of bilingual as having two native languages, and have to remind myself that acquiring a second language later counts too. But fluency is key in either of those.
[User Picture]From: cafemusique
2012-05-26 11:38 am (UTC)

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To me, the level of the later-acquired language doesn't have to be quite that high, but it has to be approaching it. I wonder if that's because of growing up close to Ottawa and bilingual often meant closer to "fluent enough in the later-acquired language for the Canadian government to recognize your ability to work in that language."

I would have considered myself bilingual (by my definition) at one point. I don't know whether I would now. Not that it has much practical application, now that I live in Virginia. The only time I hear French is when I am watching/listening to Canadian TV/radio. I also know that it comes back quickly if I'm around it. But I also know it doesn't come back to quite the same level.

That said, when I checked dictionary.com, they defined bilingual as "able to speak two languages with the facility of a native speaker."
[User Picture]From: thnidu
2012-05-26 05:22 am (UTC)

"no dictionaries read my LJ, but there are linguists and people fluent in ASL who do"

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I'm far from fluent in ASL, but (as you know, Bob) I *am* a linguist, and I did my doctoral work on that language.

There's ASL, and then there are various formalized ways of signing English, and then there's a whole continuum in between. (In the US, of course. But I'm pretty sure it's a similar situation in most countries, at least in developed ones.) Most hearies' signing is somewhere on that continuum, and most signing Deaf people are familiar with at least part of it. This man must be at least competent in English to be holding his job, and he would be well able to communicate with a hearie who knows enough to "muddle through".

You're certainly not fully English/ASL bilingual, but you know that. Nor are you fluent in ASL. But you are able to communicate adequately in sign: in this case with a signer whose English is good, and probably also, with more difficulty and perhaps less success, with less well English-educated signers.

And *I'm* glad that you've learned some ASL and are ready, willing, and able to use it.

And there's my 2/3 ¢.

Edited at 2012-05-26 05:23 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: shmuelisms
2012-05-30 09:14 pm (UTC)

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I tend to think of "bilingual" as speaking both "as a native would", but then, when it comes to words, I'm very strict in my standards. By that same definition, I would probably NOT be quite good enough an English speaker to count as as bilingual, even though I consider both to be "mother tongue" languages and though most other people would think I'm bilingual.

In addition to the many criteria listed for being bilingual, I would like to add two:
1) Proper pronunciation of different sets of phonemes. Take Hebrew & English- many Anglos speaking Hebrew give me the "fingernails on chalkboards" reaction. Yes we have "the same" vowels. No they don't sound at all alike. I'll be kind and say that perhaps it is enough to understand the differences, even if unable to articulate them.
2) More cultural than "pure" language - knowing that while dictionaries will translate X as Y, that this is ONLY a rough approximation. To be truly fluent /bilingual, I say understanding what these difference ARE.