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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Look who's bilingual now

Being accused of being too honest for my own good is something I can actually live with quite well. Gives me a nice warm feeling inside, and mostly what I end up giving up is not particularly significant. However, recently I've been thinking that I'm seriously doing myself a disservice. I speak three European languages to a good level of fluency and still find myself looking at job ads and thinking that I can't even apply for most of the vacancies because I don't have the right language skills. 

The problem is that I want a job where I can write, and all the local writing jobs want French or German as a mother tongue. (English-language writing jobs do exist round here, but they're rare, not always genuinely open competitions and there are LOTS of people like me - "trailing spouses" is a term I learnt recently - trying to garner them.) 

Now my German is good, really good. I've published in German. When chatting to German-speakers, I get mistaken for a German. But it's not my mother tongue. Honest as I am, I can't put that on my CV. And in these days of job ads ending with "Please don't bother to apply if you don't fit our basic and easily definable criteria", such as native speaker requirement, it doesn't matter how well I argue in my covering letter that I have near-native German and frankly better French than most German-speaking Swiss can muster. My CV is still not going to make it through that first filter.

So I decided to say that I'm bilingual English-German. This way I'm not lying, I'm not claiming anything about what my mother tongue is or isn't. And I'm not pretending to have any skills I don't have. It's all a question of definition. There are plenty of high-status, academic-backed definitions of bilingual which apply to my language skills (although I'm not yet quite sure how I would manage a challenge to my definition of bilingual in an interview situation - citing some professor's most recent publication might not work so well with a hardened HR professional). 

Can I offer you one definition I came across recently? It's from Xiao-lei Wang's book "Learning to read and write in the multilingual family"*. It focuses on literacy skills, but I would still suggest it's typical of other academic definitions of multilingualism (she in fact quotes some). After several pages of discussion on the "competency continuum" (p.23) of various language users, she arrives at the following definition of multiliteracy:

"an individual [who] can actively use more than one language in reading or writing with different levels of proficiency for a particular purpose" (p.24).

In this definition, the pretension to proficiency is related exclusively to the purpose of the communication, and not to some edified norm of native-speaker status. After all, there are plenty of native speakers who positively massacre their own languages, particularly in writing - one look at the average Facebook page, or comments in any museum's guest book, is enough evidence of that.
So by calling myself bilingual I can stay honest and hopefully significantly increase my chances of finding the job I want some time in the foreseeable future. Wish me luck!

* Wang, Xiao-lei (2011) Learning to read and write in the multilingual family, Multilingual Matters: Bristol

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  1. Go for it, it sounds like a good way of phrasing it! Plus, having been on a bunch of hiring committees at work, you'd be surprised just how much license people take in showing they meet some kind of requirement.......

    And you're absolutely right about native speakers - I am one and I sure no longer have as good a grip on German as I did when I lived there and used it all the time. With other adults, if you know what I mean :)

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks smashedpea! I was also thinking of some monolingual native speakers whose spelling and grammar is atrocious, there are plenty of those too! I wonder about my English though these days. I spent a couple of days with my parents recently and noticed that I was struggling to find the more idiomatic English expressions, because although I speak a fair amount of English still, I tone it down so that the kids or non-native speakers will understand. I was trying to be sarcastic to a non-native speaker, father of two, about his newly acquired sun-lounger, asking him when he lounged, and he started telling me about his lunch habits...


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