Autore: Ilenia Montana
Traduction en français : Federica Bonapace
English translation: Fabiana Grassi

Speaking two languages doesn’t mean you’re a translator or an interpreter. As professionals in this field, we’ll never get tired of saying that. Let’s try to understand why bilingualism and translation are not as closely related as we may think.

What’s bilingualism?

Bilingualism is a concept belonging to psycho-sociolinguistics. Bilingualism is the ability to express oneself in two different languages. True bilingual speakers usually are strongly influenced by both cultures. Bilingualism is the simplest form of multilingualism (or plurilingualism), as opposed to monolingualism (the ability of speaking only one language).

There are different forms of bilingualism:

Simultaneous bilingualism, when in the early age you learn two languages at the same time; consecutive bilingualism, when you become bilingual in a second language after learning your mother tongue.

Bilingualism is a clear advantage: it provides mental agility, cognitive flexibility, aptitude to language learning and, according to several studies, it also helps fighting Alzheimer’s disease!

Sooner or later (generally starting from childhood), every bilingual person has experienced a situation in which they have had to act as an interpreter: maternal grandparents who only speak Spanish but need to interact with an Italian-speaking father, or a dinner with both German and Portuguese friends that need someone to act as a bridge between them.

However, it’s wrong to say that “translation is bilingualism” and thus “every bilingual person is a translator/interpreter”. Despite this fact, all too often companies ask a secretary to translate documents or to carry out liaison interpreting during a meeting with a foreign client; she may be considered fit for this role only because one or both of her parents speak a foreign language.

Professional interpreters and translators: way more than just bilingualism.

A professional isn’t just someone that speaks two (or more) languages fluently. Thanks to years of studies and specialization, a professional has acquired translation and interpreting techniques, as well as the ability to juggle specialized jargons.

“No one is born knowing everything”. Even in our own mother tongue, we don’t know all the specific terms of the medical, legal or agricultural jargon. We can only specialize with study and preparation. That’s the difference between a bilingual person and a translator or an interpreter. You need years of studies and practice to become able to listen in a language, speak in another language while mentally translating what’s being said, while you keep on listening to the speaker’s words and in the meanwhile you check that what you’re saying is correct.

I’m neither crazy nor possessed, no. Welcome to the world of simultaneous interpreting! And this is just an example of the various interpreting techniques.

An interpreter and a translator not only need to be fluent in two languages, they also have to know the whole world underneath them. That’s the difference between translators and a dictionary. Why do we hesitate a second when someone asks us: “how do you say that in this language”? Because everything depends on the context and speaking two languages isn’t enough.

Moreover, someone may be bilingual because of one of his parents, but he may not be updated on the current events of his parent’s country or language – which, as we all know, is ever evolving.

Every bilingual person (whether simultaneous or consecutive) should definitely cherish and nurture their priceless treasure. But those who want to go beyond that and turn it into a career should definitely understand that speaking two languages is an instrument. It’s a starting point, not the finish point.


If you liked this article, we are publishing soon another one on bilingualism and language learning in children. Stay tuned!



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