Pros and cons of bilingualism

by Terence MacNamee

We often hear praise of bilingualism as a state to be aspired to. If a person knows just one language, the argument goes, they are trapped in a single vision of the world. If a person knows two languages, however, they understand that there is more than one way of looking at the world. Bilingualism makes you tolerant, open, flexible and mentally agile. So they say. Especially language teachers.

It is hard to disagree with this argument. Yet I for one doubt whether bilingualism can be a goal. What language teachers are advocating is not really bilingualism, but exposure to a second language in large doses. Real bilingualism – the native-like control of two languages – generally arises as a result of accidents in people’s lives or in society, such as migration. It is something that happens to people as children rather than as adults, and they no more choose it as a life goal than babies choose to be baptized.

Bilingualism is a good thing, but it can be limiting. As a bilingual, a person acquires a bipolar vision of the world, a vision in terms of either-or. You think that everything is this or that, it belongs to one language-world or the other. This is a rather Manichaean dichotomy with which all sorts of internal conflicts may come to associate themselves: the language of father versus the language of mother, the language of the East versus the language of the West, and so on. The only solution is to learn a third language; because trilingualism relativises the either-or dichotomy automatically.

When you learn a third language, it can be a experience like that of the Spaniards in Keats’ poem, who stood “silent upon a peak in Darien”: they had left their native country, crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World, and now they were discovering another vast ocean, another side of the world. The same can be said for learning about a third culture, if you already know two.

Would I go so far as to criticise bilingualism, which is held up as an ideal by language teachers? I would not say that bilingualism is not a good thing, just that it needs to be extended and completed. Knowing two languages perfectly, unreflectingly, can be a trap, almost as much as knowing only one language; whereas if you go on and learn three languages, you will be able to avoid Manichaean visions of the world.