By Alice Lapuerta
Photo Credit: Liz
Ambilingual. The name itself sounds as though we are talking about an unpleasant sort of reptile, with yellow scales and gleaming eyes (at least five). It may very well be such a monster!
The Ambilingual is the epitome of everything in multilingualism that gives us parents headaches, worries, stress, sleepless nights, nightmares, guilty feelings. The Ambilingual is the reason why we drag our children to doctors and speech therapists when in fact they are perfectly fine.
The Ambilingual is why we feel as failures when we in fact things couldn’t be going any better. The Ambilingual is why we undermine ourselves when we should be patting ourselves on the shoulder. The Ambilingual is why we think we have failed when we have already succeeded!
The Ambilingual is an impossible ideal to measure up to: for Ambilingual translates into “the perfectly balanced bilingual”.
It refers to two monolinguals within a single person. A breed of pure-tongued creatures that speak all languages perfectly, accent-free, no less than with equal native-like fluency, and that on a continuous, unchanging basis.
The Ambilingual, unfortunately, sets the impossible definition of what our goal should be, of who a “Bilingual” is, of what our children should be attaining.
Many of us buy into the falsehood that unless you are an ambilingual you are not a bilingual. Not really. Anything beneath perfection means that you are trying to sneak into a club of elites with jeans and dirty sneakers. In short: you’re not really meant to be in there, in the club of Bilinguals. Expect to get kicked out any time.
I’ve been kicked out of the club myself several times in the past. I used to think that I was a bilingual, then a trilingual.
Until I was corrected.
I have been told that I am not “really” a trilingual because I did not grow up speaking all three languages simultaneously (I acquired them consecutively).
My three languages are not balanced (sometimes my English is stronger, sometimes my German– what can I do? They keep changing all the time! – And the last time I was fluent in Korean was when I was a kid). So I do not speak my three languages 100% perfectly, with native-like “amtrilinguality”.
Sometimes I think the only way I can properly express myself is by mixing up all three (in the world of Ambilinguality this is a cardinal sin).
Some people would say that I am a messy Bilingual with approaching passive trilingual potential. Ergo, without the golden Ambilingual status I shall, forevermore, remain in the shoe room of the club.
Let’s face it: The Ambilingual, the perfectly balanced bilingual, is a mythical creature. Like the unicorn or the centaur. That is not to say it doesn’t exist. But it is so rare that we might as well say they don’t exist.
Then why do we let this presence make us so miserable?
Why is the notion of ambilingualism as a measuring stick so alive in the minds of many people? Why do we cling to this myth? Why is it so important to us?
Is it the elitism that appeals to us? Or the fear that unless our kids speak all their languages accent free and with native-like fluency they may be mistaken as stupid – or worse: as foreigners?
Reality is that, as with so many things in life, there is rhythm and movement to bilingualism: it waxes and wanes, grows and changes. It is not frozen, not cut in stone, not static, not even for a second.
Languages change, as does our access to it, and our need.
Sometimes one language is stronger, sometimes the other. Just because your child is not speaking one language now does not mean she never will. Sometimes one language is more important than the other.
Fact is, we speak one language 40% and the other 60%. But this can, and will change!
After relocation, guess what, the balance tilts to the other side. Suddenly it is 60-40. And that language that you thought you knew of only passively? Watch yourself pull it out of its passivity as soon as you really need to!
As one language picks up, the other recedes. If you go with the flow you start to appreciate the beauty of the process.
Who, tell me, who on this planet ever speaks with 100% perfection at all times? Who remains perfectly balanced – for longer than a second?
I petition, therefore, that we sack this ideal that is making our life so hard, this ambilingual-creature. Let it sulk in the realm of mythology.
We will all be happier this way, and there will be considerably less angst in this world, starting right there in our multilingual families.