Well there you have it, the "typical" Italian conception of bilingualism, stated succinctly (in English) by an 11th-grade student attending a private, English-language immersion school. Just before he stated his definition, I had spoken with the school librarian, in between presentations I was making to students about our current research project on bilingual writing.
"It's very interesting," she told me, "I would like to hear what you think about this because, growing up in Italy, I always thought -and most Italians think- that bilingualism means you speak two languages with native-like fluency. But then, when I lived in London, my definition changed. There, I saw so many people, from all over the world, speaking so many different languages. Even my own English…"
Just two minutes later, when I asked the second group of invited students what "bilingualism" meant to them, I received the definition stated in the title, exactly as the librarian had predicted!
A couple weeks ago, I attended a symposium on bilingualism, entitled "Bilingualism in a state of evolution: A challenge and a resource". I should add, the event was hosted at the beautiful Villa Contarini, a short ride outside Padova in Piazzola sul Brenta. The research presented was very current, and focused on the "inside-the-head" factors of bilingualism: measurable linguistic and cognitive abilities, as well as quantifiable socio-interactive factors like "time on task". This was to be expected, as the presenters were psychologists conducting primarily quantitative research. I did get a sense, however, that there was a lean toward the proficiency-based definition of bilingualism, with the equally-balanced, simultaneous bilingual serving as the ideal (in spite of the fact that this profile is very rare!).
The fact is, most bilinguals (including me) learn their languages sequentially (one at home from birth and one later, e.g., at school or living in another culture), and do not have equal proficiency in both. As it would turn out, immigration in Italy has been on the rise, with immigrants now comprising approximately 8% of the population nationally (this region -Veneto- is among those with the highest numbers). About 15% of children born in Italy are born to immigrant parents, and these children do not get Italian citizenship (Unlike the U.S., Italy does not have a "citizenship by birth" right). Now more than ever, Italians are wondering how to meet the needs of children who must learn Italian as a second language at school. The field of bilingual research in Italy is young, and there is much to learn!
The awesome thing about studying language is that it is part of everyone's daily life in one way or another. I can pretty much tell anyone on the street the 10-second version of what I am doing here ("una ricerca sulla scrittura bilingue degli studenti italiani che imparano inglese come seconda lingua"), and they have an opinion about it: "Oh, Italians are really shy/bad/embarrassed about speaking English…" I won't elaborate, but I have heard plenty of folk theories about why Italians are reluctant to speak English. Of course, the academics speak fluent English and many other languages as well.
Despite the Italians' generally strict adherence to a proficiency-based definition of bilingualism and very high expectations of proficiency before a comfort level is reached (and keeping in mind my experience here is very limited!), I meet people all the time who defy these criteria.
Here's the best bilingual encounter on the subject of bilingualism: During the symposium on bilingualism, I took a break and stopped at a cafe for tea. When I ordered, the server recognized me from earlier that morning. I explained that I was attending a conference on bilingualism nearby. Her response: What's that? After drinking my tea, I checked out with a guy who had just arrived on the job. He noticed my weird Italian and asked where I was from. When I gave him my spiel and told him about the conference, and he laughed, "Bilingualism? I am from Albania and speak Albanian, Italian, English, and French". Ha ha… bilingualism, no problem!