Does Bilingualism Equal Fluency: A Canadian Exchange Student’s Struggle

By Rachel McLean

1289962_10153194197210285_206052238_aWhen I first arrived in Middelburg around the last week of August 2013, I found that most people started to identify me as “the Canadian exchange student” after I’d introduce myself. I learned that to most people, being Canadian meant that I was bilingual, that I spoke English and French. Often that was the first question I got asked after I told people my nationality. And this took me greatly by surprise.

Back home, at my bilingual campus, I am an Anglophone still learning French. While I can debate, write essays, read novels, and listen to music and films in French, no one would consider me bilingual, especially the francophone or bilingual students who hear my English accent when I speak French. That’s not to say that they won’t talk to me in French, as they will, but they know they will have to slow down and sometimes explain/translate unfamiliar words for me.

Also, in Canada, to say you’re bilingual means that you can converse fluently in both languages, and that you can switch between them without struggle. Back home, I would never identify as being bilingual.

However, when I think of the Dutch students at UCR who speak Dutch and English, I label them bilingual, even though I know that at some point each will struggle for a word or phrase. I’m also fairly certain that most people in Anglophone countries would agree with me when I say that UCR Dutch students are bilingual. I have allowed them a degree of freedom with their second language that I haven’t allowed with mine, or anyone else back home who is like me. Why?

The answer is so simple: fear. I’m afraid of being told by native speakers of French that they don’t consider me bilingual because I’m not fluent in French. I have equated bilingualism to equal fluency when I apply the term to myself. Bilingualism and fluency tend to go hand in hand and typically we expect, or at least, I expect, someone who says they are bilingual to be fluent in both languages.

So does bilingualism equal fluency? Since I have come to UCR my views on this, especially concerning myself, have changed; I no longer believe bilingualism merits perfect fluency in a language. For my own education being competent in French is enough because I can do coursework entirely in French and receive A’s. And for my exchange here at UCR, I am able to understand my French professor and can converse with any Francophone I meet while traveling – therefore I don’t need to be perfect.

I may not be fluent, but I do now consider myself bilingual. For all UCR students: Don’t worry about being fluent in your second language; be proud of the fact that you can work in more than one language and give yourself the freedom to call yourself bilingual.

Rachel McLean, class of 2015, is an English major at Glendon College, York University. She is from Drumbo, Ontario, Canada, and is currently on exchange at University College Roosevelt.  

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