After having lived for nearly 15 years in France, the majority of them in a totally “French” lifestyle, I consider myself to be comfortable in the language. My social life is almost exclusively French, there are no non Frenchies that come to my house apart from my family and occasional friends from the UK.
The telly and radio are only ever on French channels, even my car has the steering wheel on the wrong side.
I suppose the definition of being bi-lingual comes from within first of all. I can remember being in Niger, several years ago, and meeting my team mate, the person who would replace me for my four weeks at home. We were both speaking French with a few people from the company we were working for and I saw that our French was around the same level. We also had one of our bosses with us, who happily announced she was very pleased to have two bi-lingual team members. My team mate announced that yes he was, whereas I told her, unequivocally, that I wasn’t. She was surprised and told me that my French was very good, I thanked her, said I was comfortable but not bi-lingual, nor would I ever be. My friends at home all know I’m English but make no allowances for it, if anything, once the Pastis is flowing they speak even faster than usual, although to be fair alcohol is known for its linguistic assistance.
For me, being bi-lingual isn’t just about a command of the language. There are so many cultural references within a language that unless you know all of those too you cant (in my very humble opinion) be truly bi-lingual. The foreigner (to me) who speaks the best English I’ve ever heard didn’t know who the Clangers were. The soup dragon was a pair of words that made no sense.
It was made perfectly clear to me yesterday that not only am I not bi-lingual, I´m not even lingual. As my Spanish advances (painfully slowly) I wanted to say the simple phrase (I hope my Spanish is good enough, happy birthday). I thought I had it, asked one of my Spanish colleagues to confirm and they gave me a word I’d never heard of that had to be used or the sentence wouldn’t be correct. “Sea” prononounced Sayya, had to be in there.
I made enquiries into this rogue word and found out, from a Spaniard, in very good English, that it’s to be used in the subjunctive.
Ahh yes, the good old subjunctive. I word that I had possibly heard of but have no idea what it means. I did a quick rummage around on the interweb and found a grammar page that explains what the subjunctive is. I read it. I still dont know what the subjunctive is.
Over the last couple of months I’ve also had a Spanish friend explain to me what a “fellow” is, in medical terms and also what a “learned society” is.
These cultural and linguistic gaps in my English knowledge prove to me that not only will I never be bi-lingual, I’ll never even be lingual.