Sacking an Ideal: The Evil Ambilingual

by Alice · 16 comments

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.

Alice Lapuerta, the Editor of Multilingual Living Magazine, is a regular contributor at Multilingual Living. She grew up in a trilingual household of German, Korean and English. She and her husband from Ecuador live in Austria where they are raising their three children trilingually in German, Spanish and English.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tyeisha September 25, 2010 at 5:38 pm

One of the main reasons I have enjoyed reading the articles on this site is because I am reminded the perfection is not the goal. And, that progress does count for something. So, thanks for this post.


2 Alice September 28, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Thank YOU, Tyeisha, for reading, and leaving this comment! 😀 You are absolutely right in that what counts is progress, and not the goal. How does one set the goal anyway? Can one ever cross the “finish line” when it comes to languages and language-learning? As with so many things in life, language learning is an ongoing process! 😀


3 Ron September 27, 2010 at 1:26 am

Nice post! There are so many problems with applying those labels ‘monolingual’, ‘bilingual’, ‘trilingual’ and ‘multilingual’ and what our own and other people’s ideas about them are, depending to a large extent on their own language (learning) experiences and ideas about language learning. In my experience, people who mostly speak or use one language, and/or with little exposure to other languages, are more likely to hold this ‘balanced bi-/trilingual’ myth – unlike people who have grown up with (using) two or more languages, or learned to do so later, and who have a more realistic appreciation of what is involved. In many ways, the former do not know any better and lack the personal experience or information for a more realistic perspective. But – unfortunately – such myths can be very persistent…


4 Alice September 28, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Thank you, Ron. I agree. It is best to just dispense with labels altogether! Yet myths are persistent, and we need to be aware of them and not let them make our lives difficult …


5 Maria September 27, 2010 at 6:42 am

You’ve got me thinking now… The world where we live today is so different to that 20 years ago. With Internet and globalization we travel more, learn more of other places, and learning languages is more common. It is easy to guess than 20 years from now we will see a very different world, and the circumstances of our children and grandchildren will not be the same they are today.


6 Alice September 28, 2010 at 10:24 pm

…a world where it will be quite normal to be raising your kids in three, four languages! I can totally see this too! 😀 Thanks for your comment, Maria.


7 BookishIma September 27, 2010 at 8:02 am

Fantastic piece with lots for me to think over. I think you’re quite right about the absurdity of being tormented by an ideal that essentially does not exist (and: phew, I’m not the only one tormented by it!). On the other hand, my experience tells me that loss of native fluency (or failure to gain it) can be very difficult on the personal level. It’s hard to negotiate identity if you’re recognized as non-fluent in the language of a cultural group you feel you belong to. When I consider that my children could be non-fluent in my native language, it is with great sorrow.


8 Alice September 28, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Negotiating identities. Great topic! And I totally hear you, here. At the same time, from my personal experiences during teenagerhood, it was often the other way around. The cultural groups with which I really wanted to identify determined how well I wanted to speak a language!! For example, I blocked the languages with which I did not want to identify. And I strove to speak without accent (or with a certain, specific accent!) of the group I wanted to be part of! And I did succeed in doing both. And then, later, I changed my mind about it again!! 😀 I understand, though, the sadness of a parent when your child can’t or doesn’t want to speak your language. The positive thing, though, is that this can change! As I said before, when it comes to multilingualism, nothing is cut in stone. That’s the beauty of a multilingual life: it is always in motion, always in flux, even identities….


9 Mau September 27, 2010 at 9:07 pm

I’ve been speaking English and Portuguese for as long as I can remember, and no one has ever questioned whether I’m Brazilian. Similarly, all my English teaching colleagues are sure I’m American. Speaking 2 languages perfectly is not a myth, but it requires constant exposure to both languages. There are others like me out there, and believe me, we are more numerous than unicorns. 😉


10 Alice September 28, 2010 at 11:12 pm

Thank you for your comment, Mau! Yes, you are right on about the fact that when we have the need and opportunity to use both/all of our languages then the chances for them being more “balanced” is achievable. Would you say that both of your languages are in perfect balance at all times? Or is maybe one stronger due to your current circumstances and that might change in the future?
For most of us, one language is definitely more dominant at a given time (which may change over the course of our lives) and this is to be expected (see studies by Francois Grosjean; Colin Baker; Madalena Cruz-Ferreira). This is the beauty of language! Many of us get caught up with the thought that if both of our languages aren’t balanced then something is wrong and then panic sets in. My article was a light way to remind us all that perfection is not the goal; that languages are fluid and that we should make sure to enjoy them for where they are at rather than worrying about the details of definitions (like bilingual and multilingual) or whether they are perfectly balanced.


11 Barbara September 29, 2010 at 4:47 pm

A perfect accent is also not the only aspect of this. Even if somebody has perfect accents in both languages, you night have different knowledge of terminology in technology, sciences, or medicine or your occupation. For example I have an accent in English, but I’m better talking about my work in English than in German. But talking to a plumber in English is really difficult for me!


12 Cecilia Coelho September 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm

What a great post! It is so refreshing to hear someone discussing the concept and validity of ambigualism and bilingualism. As a bilingual – or should I say fluent speaker? I certainly did not grow up in a bilingual environment – myself, trying to raise my children to be fluent English speakers (they go to a bilingual school) I face those questions one too many times. As a student of English when I was young I strived to speak English without an accent, using native-like expressions and so. I felt I could only call myself a fluent speaker when people didn’t notice I wasn’t a native speaker. Well, after years of being an EFL teacher, much reading, reflecting and discussing I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t so. So many of my students speak with a heavy accent and yet use the language with such property, so effectively. Can I really turn to these students and say they’re not fluent/bilingual? I think that is very unfair. And even though my children seem to have the talent for languages and beautiful prosody, I am not worried about that. It brings me pride (I can’t deny that) but that’s not what is important.

Thank you for bringing such an interesting/meaningful discussion up. I loved it!


13 Alice September 28, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Thank you, Cecilia, for your wonderful comment! And you know what’s really great? That what you discovered already on a personal level is completely supported by current research! Unfortunately many multilinguals think like you used to (that unless I speak with perfection I am not a real multilingual). Prof. Francois Grosjean says in an interview that this is one of the main reasons why he decided to write his book: “When defending my holistic approach, I am constantly thinking of bilinguals who belittle their bilingualism because they do not master their languages to the same level. This leaves them insecure and worried about their status as human communicators. This saddens me as all bilinguals should have positive feelings about their bilingualism.”

It helps us to know that the view of “two monolinguals within one person” is actually false, and that the interaction, the constant flux and motion of our languages are actually more natural, more the norm than a constant, static balance.


14 Rogelio January 4, 2011 at 11:30 pm

I enjoyed reading this post. I grew up speaking English and Spanish at home. During my sophomore year of high school, I began to learn French on my own to the point that I knew how to pronounce the words properly. However, it wasn’t until undergraduate school that I took French all four years. (I’m currently in my fourth year). I enjoy reading French novels as it allows me to understand the mentality of a different culture while simultaneously retaining mine. Furthermore, during my second year of undergraduate school, I took a semester of Italian at my local community college. After taking that course, I become obsessed with learning Italian. Currently, I’m autodidactic in Italian, and during the Summer, I read my first novel in Italian called “L’identità” by Milan Kundera. Oddly enough, this “novella” was originally written in French but was translated to Italian. Overall, I’ve done great and I feel proud of myself. Hopefully, once I have reached near-native fluency, I hope to learn Portuguese, and finish my Japanese studies.

-à bientôt

Rogelio Hernandez


15 Alex March 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm

On the days when I feel like I should have started my German earlier, regret that I code switch like crazy, and worry that I will never achieve the Bilingual status, posts like these remind that the “Elite Status” is a myth. Thank you so much !


16 Vivian Topp Klein January 28, 2013 at 7:17 am

Dear Alice

I saw your page and this post by chance. I want to start by saying that I think this is a wonderful forum and that the information I am writing is not meant to offend anyone.

ALICE, with all due respect you are not providing accurate or complete information to your listeners. The term ‘ambilingual’ refers to one of 7 definitions of bilingualism defined by Dr. Michel Paradis, a noted neurologist and linguist. He was the first investigator to research, describe and attempt to define bilingualism. ‘Ambilingual’ is defined as proficient USE of two languages. There are 6 other definitions of bilingualism that describe proficiency and functionality. There are also varying conditions where are more fluent in one language than the other (especially as we age) so bilingualism is a fluid and not static concept.

ALICIA, research has shown that one cannot have a perfect accent in a second language unless one learns that language before puberty and unless the models (teachers, community, friends) that we grow up in and live in speak English with an English accent. Remember that there are different accents depending on the country and/or the region so it is not uncommon to speak with the accent of the region when you are learning the language. So, kids learning to speak Spanish in a community where teachers, parents and friends speak English with a latin accent, will mnore than likely have a latin accent when they speak English. Kids who learned English from British teachers in Africa or Jamaica learned to speak English with a British accent, etc. Accent is not included in the definitions of bilingualism for these resons. I understnd that this is how our employers and community memebers may view it- so we need to educate, educate, educate.

ALEX, code switching is a perfectly normal and neurologically efficient thing to do when we are bilingual. It is not a bad thing at all. When we are in an environment where other people speak the same languges that we do, the brain picks the word (in either language) that is most efficient in order to keep the conversation or our message fluid. If this is done in a setting where the person or other persons involved in the communication does not speak the languages we do, it means that you simply don’t have the same sixe vocabulary bank in that language.

For example, as a Spanish speaking speech pathologist, I get invited to speak about various speech or language topics in Spanish. My education has all been in English. My presentations early were full of code switching and word searching because I lacked the use or practice speaking about the subjects in Spanish. That did not mean the presentation was imperfect and I gaging by the comments post-talk, I lived up to the expectations of the audience. As amatter of fact, many commented that I was ‘perfectly’ bilingual. There is no “elite status” in the world of bilingualism. If you speak more that 1 language, you are bilingual. You have the USE of two languages.
AMBILINGUALISM is kind of like the Ph.D. You need to study, work and add to your verbal fluency all the time. Most of us don’t have the time to do that if we live in all-English community. Remember that we can do well with a high school, college or master’s level education. We can also be bilingual without being ‘ambilingual’.

Please google Dr. Pradis’s work-it is very enlightening. There are also numerous articles and investigtations regard second and third language acquisition available. You can begin by visiting the American Speech Language Association (ASHA) website.

Vivian H. Topp, M. Ed., CCC-SLP
Bilingual Speech-Language Pathologist


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