Being “perfectly bilingual” is a monolingual dream, illusion, deception… Bilingualism is not an absolute, an acquired state, a finite quantity. It is fluid and dynamic: like riding on sand dunes in an undulating, ever-changing and never-ending landscape.
Our languages are closely linked to our experiences, life’s twists and turns, changing contexts, and the people who come into our lives, and then are left behind or move on. Our languages take turns to be at the top of the dunes and then plunge, very often in slow motion, to the bottom. One day, you realise that ten years of absence from your mother tongue has left you hesitating, searching for words, lacking in fluency. Yet, back in the context where you need to communicate and interact in that language, you return to the top of the dunes.
In a continuum of language proficiency bi- or multilinguals plot their languages at different points and would need to reassign different places on the continuum to these languages depending on changing circumstances. For example, Afrikaans, my second language, has become redundant in my European context. After thirteen years of residence in France, French, which I learnt as a foreign language at school, has toppled Afrikaans and become my second ‘beloved’ language. It doesn’t disappear though: I delight in listening to Charlize Theron as she answers a Flemish journalist’s questions in Afrikaans! In the words of a 9-year-old: “Because when I was 2 I lived in London and I spoke very good English but when I came back to France I lost all my English words so I came here (British Council Bilingual Section) to speak like I spoke in the past” .
This is because bilinguals develop their various languages in distinct domains and/or with specific individuals. This 7-year-old French/English bilingual child illustrates this point marvellously: “I talk to my mom in English about how to have a baby. I talk to my dad about if we will buy a baguette.” According to Harding-Esch & Riley (2003) “there are chunks of life that bilinguals have only experienced in one or other of their languages”. For example, one language may be used at home and embraces family life, holidays, mealtimes and mum’s tender words; while the other language is a vehicle for education and professional life. One language ignores the thrills of baking a cake with mum and the other the sense of achievement at a graduation ceremony; yet the person between the two can develop the cross-linguistic knowledge, the analytical skills, the cognitive prowess, and the motivation to bake the cake in the second language and read academic papers in the first. Ultimately, navigating the dunes of linguistic proficiency depends on the quantity and quality of language interaction, and parents, teachers and other members of the community play a fundamental role in steering that linguistic buggy to proficient heights.