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Bilingualism, a chance or a necessity?

Bilingualism, trilingualism, multilingualism is a wide subject, with sometimes rather fuzzy contours, subject of many studies, sometimes divergent, but still fascinating and describing so many contrasted realities. To start with something to get our teeth into, let's take a look at the figures. Tough ones and not always aligned. But anyway, let us consider the following key points:

27.6% of the world's states are said to be bilingual even though very few of them achieve real parity between the official languages involved. But more broadly, by cheating a bit with the definition of multilingualism and broadening its scope, it could even be argued that there are more multilingual than monolingual countries in the world. This, of course, integrating official and non-official languages, and even dialects.

In (continental) Europe, 7% of the population is officially bilingual (10 countries), including Belgium (Dutch/French/German), Belarus (Belarusian/Russian) or Switzerland (German/French/Italian; and Romansh). In Luxembourg, on the other hand, Luxembourgish, French and German are the official languages. While this may, at first glance, seem quite modest compared to the Swiss neighbour, it should be highlighted that German and French are compulsory from primary school and that official documents are systematically written in all three languages. This doesn’t make a small difference.

The coexistence of official and non-official languages on the same territory is to be found in history, wars of conquest, movements of migration; forced or not.

The case of Serbia is a sad example, among many others, with its official language, Serbian, and some other ten regional and minority languages; it is all about a forced multilingualism, through fire and sword.

If we go further, beyond our European borders and our comfort zone, to South Africa, where eleven languages are officially recognized. "Over there," everyone will be at least bilingual. Heavy legacy of a very recent and still present segregationist history, even visible through the language, which prevented until just a few decades ago a majority of people from accessing essential and fair rights, that a shared practice of Afrikaans, a language still today highly symbolic of a "shameful" era that the younger generations want to get rid of, would have made possible.

India? This giant with hundreds of languages and dialects could be quite scary... Twenty-two languages in the Constitution! World Record? Hindi and English as official and administrative languages. And yet, this country has no designated national language (!). This does not make sense...

And as for France, it is officially monolingual "French" since... 1992! However, other "endemic" languages are practiced and taught in France such as Basque, Corsican and Breton. Despite the attachment of many to some regional languages, these are not considered official languages. Beyond our French borders, French is practiced on a day-to-day basis in many other multilingual countries, as is the case in the Maghreb where there is de facto multilingualism, because even if French does not represent any of the official languages there, yet it is spoken and learned by most of the population…

Exceptions, ô exceptions, when you hold us...

The landscape of multilingualism is thus very contrasted and marked by history; not necessarily very simple or smooth. Moreover, according to UNESCO, multilingualism is the most accurate reflection of multiculturalism. The disappearance of the former will inevitably lead to the loss of the latter.

But in fact, what is bilingualism, to be “simple”, or multilingualism?

According to the French dictionary LAROUSSE, bilingualism refers to the situation of an individual who is fluent in two different languages (individual bilingualism) or the situation of a community where two languages are used concurrently.

Another well-known French dictionary, the ROBERT, says quite the same thing, except that it adds a geographical nuance (region, country, etc.) and specifies that: "Perfect bilingualism is rare."

While it goes without saying, it will go even better by saying it.

The Spanish dictionary of the REAL ACADEMIA ESPAÑOLA does not add any extra hint, where the English dictionary OXFORD reinforces the idea that to be bilingual, you need to be able to speak two languages indiscriminately: «Able to speak two languages equally well».

Bilinguals have the amazing ability to use two languages without confusing them. The bilingual brain is able to minimize the interferences that the knowledge of two languages may predictably trigger. And here again, this brings us a huge nuance. The "perfect" bilingual will be able to use either language regardless of the situation, and independently of the subject, and his way of learning languages, preferably not simultaneously, will have enabled him to clearly delineate each language, to differentiate them in order to avoid an unfortunate mix-up; towards a sad primordial soup…

But in fact, and as stated at the beginning of this article, we must be modest, many people are bilingual. They may have grown up in a foreign country, have traveled around the world for years, have parents who speak a different language, live in a region of the world where bilingualism is a necessity, sometimes officially recognized... Or more basically, they may have studied for many and beautiful years to become an expert navigating on a brittle vessel between these languages. Some bilinguals can even give the impression that they have two mother tongues; and that goes without saying, without any detectable accent...

O Holy Grail!

However, getting back on track, the knowledge of another language is not the only skill required to be a good translator or interpreter.

Each bilingual is not a translator, but do all translators have to be bilingual?

Of course, yes! Without a perfect command of the translation languages (source and target), the foundations are not there, and the rest can only falter, collapsing like a house of cards. On the other hand, as already pointed out, perfect bilingualism being more than exceptional, all translators will tell you that only the mother tongue, the primary language of the very first words and probably of the last ones, can be chosen as the target language. It will be the dominant language that we will know much more intimately and thoroughly than for the average population. It will nevertheless be necessary to know each of the translated languages (or said in other words, all the languages used during the translation process) in all their subtleties, inconsistencies, written conventions etc. This will enable professional translators to develop one of the most important qualities inherent to their profession: a sense of detail. Nothing, when translating, can be left to chance. Cultural differences, language register, hidden meanings, emotions, sense of humor, double meanings and many other.

Bilingualism or multilingualism could therefore be seen as an opportunity for those who wish to enter the translation profession of faith.

But in reality, this remains far from being enough because certain predispositions are still necessary. First and foremost, a translator will have to be much more skilled in his or her native language than an average person and more aware of the nuances in the source language than a native speaker. Critical thinking, sense of analysis and keen eye for details...

I have known many bilingual people in my short life, but very few rare birds of whom one may wonder if they really have one mother only, since their command of at least two "mother" tongues is so close to perfection.

Eventually, it is obvious that in most of Latin America for example, an "indigenous" who does not speak the noble Castilian will be doomed to remain isolated from the rest of society, in the broadest sense of the term (beyond his own “microcosm” of course). This might be his choice, which the young generations, for most, do not make, seeking on the contrary to integrate the society precisely through a perfect proficiency of the official language, even if it may lead them to gradually forget the richness and nuances of their native language; or even the ability of speaking it.

Like a French fellow living for too long far from his "motherland", his generous but remote Pachamama, who would have lost the linguistic reflexes, some expressions, from his own language, although acquired through long and laborious years.

Nothing can ever be taken for granted... That' s not fair!

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