The Thing About Bilingualism
The thing about bilingualism is that it is often misunderstood. Being bilingual does not—and cannot—mean having equal proficiency in both languages. Whether one learned a first language as a child and then another language down the road, like I did, or grew up learning both languages simultaneously, like my two children have done, one language will necessarily be dominant. Even in the most evenly split cases, one language is dominant in some situations while the other language is dominant in others.
In the U.S., many child immigrants and children of immigrants grow up learning about their family heritage, cultural traditions, and day-to-day familial interactions in one language but learn to relate with other children, their teachers, and the rest of the world in English. This split dynamic, for sure, leads to bilingualism (and biculturalism), but it leaves these individuals with different strengths and weaknesses in each language. As these children continue to grow and interact with the world, these strengths and weaknesses can shift depending on the individuals’ interests and influences. Just as no two individuals are alike, no two bilingual individuals’ bilingual-skill balances are alike.
So next time you are talking to people who consider themselves bilingual, whether you are interviewing them for a job opening, doing business with them, or just having a chat, instead of making assumptions about their abilities in their other language, if relevant, feel free to ask them how they would rate their proficiency in that other language compared to the one you are speaking to them in. If you are interviewing them for a job opening at your company, put them to the test. If you have people on staff whose skills in that language you already trust, invite them to help you interview your candidates. If you don’t already have someone on staff and that’s why you are looking for a new bilingual employee or partner, put some specific scenarios to your candidates in the interview—ones they would likely run into on the job—and ask them to be honest about their ability to handle those scenarios. The vast majority of candidates will be straight with you about their bilingual abilities, but only if they are fully aware of what would be expected of them on the job. If assumptions are made on both sides in the interview, everyone involved will be in for a rude awakening when your new hire faces his/her first real challenge.
A common assumption that employers make is that if their employees’ conversational skills are top notch in both languages, they are automatically well versed in every field. It is erroneous, for example, to assume that your bilingual receptionist has the language training to translate your products’ technical manuals or your company’s marketing materials, yet this is happening all over the country. Translation and interpretation, in particular, are very specialized skills and being highly proficient in two languages is only the start.
The thing about bilingualism is that it can be understood, but only if we first make no assumptions.