Is a bilingual person like two monolinguals in one body?

Sep 08, 2022

There is no such thing as the perfectly balanced bilingual. Simultaneous bilinguals are people who learn two languages from birth. But since babies learn words directly from other humans, in context, young bilingual children don't have all the same words across all their languages.

Maybe they have done lots of cooking with Abuela, so have Spanish cooking words, but gardening with Opa, so know more nature words in German. And they go to daycare in English.

Different contexts = different languages and words used!

Given the right exposure, simultaneous bilinguals can infer meanings (extrapolate) from one language to another, and appear to have monolingual-like fluency in both (or more) languages as they get older.

But language is a dynamic process and a continuum, not a static state or product. Our languages interact with each other and as we change environments, our cognitive and linguistic resources are engaged differently.

Context really plays a huge role. Spending longer in a monolingual Spanish environment will lead to Spanish being 'dominant', until returning to an English environment, where English may be the dominant language again.

The problem is comparing bilinguals to monolinguals. It's like comparing a kingfisher to a penguin. Yes they are both birds, both have wings and feet, but they are entirely different because of their contexts and they USE their faculties differently.

Judith Kroll, renowned researcher in the ever-evolving science of bilingualism, runs a lab at the University of California where the researchers are unknotting how languages interact with each other in our brains as we add more languages to our repertoire.

The juggle is real! Far from being a fixed, rock-solid part of our brain, our first language (often called L1 in research papers) is dynamically shaped and interacts with our subsequent languages (L2, etc).

This is perhaps why, when I was speaking a lot more French as a new graduate who'd recently returned from a year in Paris, I forgot the English word for the things on the ends of my feet. I wanted to say they were cold. My brain came up with, "My foot fingers are freezing!" Nope. Of course I meant TOES! 

It's really interesting to see how our brains process language, and how we produce a word at the right moment, in the appropriate language for the context is nothing short of amazing! Fascinating stuff.

If, like me, you are super interested, you can watch Judith Kroll's 2020 lecture on "The fate of the native language in second language learning" on YouTube here 

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