Bilingual or multilingual speakers in the native English language speaking world are quite a rarity, in contrast to genuine bilingualism or multilingualism in many other places. Genuine bilingualism does not mean that someone has a reasonable smattering of a language other than their own. It means that their fluency and range of vocabulary are more or less similar in more than one language. A genuine bilingual person is comfortable speaking and understanding in more than one language.
In the native English language speaking world, one of the more obvious reasons for the lack of bilingualism is the fact that English has become such an important international language. It makes many English language speakers lazy as they feel that they have less incentive for learning another language. Genuine bilinguals are often those who were brought up by parents whose native languages were different or have migrated to or have settled in an English language country so have had every incentive to learn as much of their adopted country’s language.
By contrast, people who live in countries whose language is spoken nowhere else or are frequent visitors to other countries where the language is different often become bilingual or multilingual by necessity.
A good example is to compare Scandinavians who, on the whole, are typically bilingual. Their countries have small populations whose people speak languages spoken nowhere else in the world. South Americans, on the other hand, are often only monolingual as their contact with other people who speak anything other than Spanish is slight. Everybody speaks Spanish, so why bother speaking anything else?
Do Bilingual Speakers make Good Interpreters?
Bilingual speakers are frequently used to interpret conversations which have become bogged down by incomprehension, but this doesn’t mean that every bilingual speaker has the skills to be a professional interpreter. Bilingual speakers, on the other hand, are certainly better qualified to become a professional interpreter, or train to become a professional interpreter, than a monolingual speaker who has two sets of skills to learn: one is another language to the point of fluency and the other is the set of skills that a professional interpreter must acquire to become useful as an interpreter.
The difference could be compared to a parent who home schools their child and a professional teacher. The parent can certainly do a good job teaching one or two of their own children who are dependent on them for their livelihood and affection. But put them in a school and immediately they would be aware that there are far more skills to learn that accompany being a professional teacher.
The professional interpreter often works in a specialised setting. The court interpreter, for example, must have a good working knowledge of legal terms and legal protocol, including the way a court works. A medical interpreter likewise must have acquired a good working knowledge of a variety of medical terms, be familiar with many of the sorts of common illnesses and injuries that people may experience when they come to a hospital. The medical interpreter must also have a good working knowledge of medical procedures, the layout of the hospital and the way it functions.
Interpreters are often called to interpret people who speak in a vernacular or dialect. Interpreters who have a lot to do with migrants or refugees for example, may need to become familiar with the linguistic and cultural nuances of the people they are interpreting for.
Interpreters must be good listeners and interpret body language. They don’t have the time that translators have, for example, who mainly deal with the written or printed text. Interpreters who provide their expertise at conferences don’t have a second chance when they interpret what speakers are saying. They can’t ‘edit’ or ‘proofread’ what they have just said. They must be adept enough to be aware of double meanings when someone is being deliberately obscure, humorous or ironic. Literal interpreting in this sort of situation can have unintended consequences!
Bilingual and multilingual speakers have a gift which they should be proud of and which they should use. It doesn’t mean that they will all opt to start a career in interpreting, but it is certainly a rewarding career for some.