Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Bilingualism as a dream

Remember all those theories of bilingualism I have been playing around with? Let's review:

1. Bilingualism and the body: Acquiring an additional language is a corporal experience that involves the whole self and identity. Bilingualism is achieved when our inner voice matches our outer voice.

2. Bilingualism as resonance: Acquiring an additional language has to do with attuning oneself to the (literal and figurative) vibrations of the new language. Bilingualism is achieved when the vibrations of the new language match our internal vibrations and thus produce "linguistic resonance", a natural sense of ease.  

3. Bilingualism = speaking two languages nearing perfectly: This is the typical, Italian-on-the-street take on bilingualism. I personally do not agree with this definition, but keep it in mind in working with students and teachers here.

4. Bilingualism as a game: Acquiring an additional language is essentially a game: You may or may not receive prior training, but once immersed in the cultural environment of the new language, you apply whatever skills you have to solve problems, avoid obstacles, and advance to new levels. Progress in language learning, as in a video game, is uneven: you may advance quickly, plateau, or regress. The language game is never ending, as there is always more to learn and apply in new and ever-changing contexts.

I have a new metaphor for the process of becoming bilingual: Bilingualism as a dream.

A dreamy landscape in Varenna, on Lake Como

Like our dreams at night, second language acquisition often doesn't make any sense. It can seem unpredictable and obscure, delivering cryptic messages in the form of symbols that take time to decipher. Certain aspects of the new language and its use may seem concrete, real, and tangible. On the other hand, deeper/more subtle components of language (e.g., idiomatic expressions, local jargon, culturally-driven language behaviors, including pragmatic aspects) may seem absurd or simply out of reach. As in dreams, we sometimes trudge through our second language world, sometimes fly, and sometimes want to run away screaming.

People often say that you know that you have truly acquired a language when you dream in that language. I have to say, since I have been in Italy, I have dreamed many times in Italian; however, in most of these dreams I am searching for words, trying to assemble grammatically correct sentences, and conjugating verbs. Thus, my dream-Italian is more or less just as effortful (hopefully getting better) as my real-life-Italian. I awake from these dreams ready to jump out of bed and grab the bilingual dictionary or visit my favorite Italian verb conjugator website. Then my dream blurs into reality: another day of cryptic messages surrounded by beautiful moments of clarity.    

Of course, there's another significance to the word, 'dream'; that is, as a wish or goal that we hope to achieve. Language, again, can apply to this sense of dream in that people in so many situations long to acquire a new language. In fact, they may be desperate to do so in order to improve their quality of life.   

I have often felt privileged to have English as my native language, when so many people around the world dream of learning it as an additional language. The other side of the native English speaker coin is carrying the weight of the bad reputation that the U.S. has for being linguaphobes (my term). I'll always remember the disappointment, combined with a serious dose of realism, that I felt when an Italian teacher told me, "It's not that you speak Italian well. It's that you are an American who actually speaks some Italian… this is what impresses Italians". With so many people around the world speaking English as a second language, it's easy for people who are native speakers to take the easy road and remain monolingual. However, I can guarantee that those who do realize the dream of becoming bilingual will possess an invaluable gift that will forever enrich their life.  

Let's play a little language game. Below are a few quotes about dreams. Read the quote, then read it again, substituting the word, language/s for the word dream/s.

1. "Having dreams is what makes life tolerable" (from the movie, Rudy).

2. "A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work" (Colin Powell).

3. "There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure (Paulo Coelho).

4. " The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams" (Eleanor Roosevelt).

It worked, right? In so many senses, bilingualism is a dream: something to muddle through and interpret, something to reach for, and something to hang onto. Yes! Hold onto your dreams… and your languages! 

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