Many people ask me if I’m bilingual now. The answer: a big, whopping NO. Bilingual, to me, means complete fluency. It means 100% mastery of all grammatical structures. It means a vocabulary equally as big (or close to) that of one’s native language. I speak well. I may even speak very well. But there is no way I’m bilingual.
Rather, I consider myself functionally bilingual. I still make grammatical errors, I still have a lot of vocab to learn, and I still forget vocab words I know after not using them for a long time. I’ve incorporated a solid amount of slang and idioms to my vernacular, but there are plenty that rest outside of my circle of knowledge. But I’m functional. I know enough to express myself in any situation, either using the appropriate terminology or using what I know to describe what I need to say.
I have many situations down to the T: introducing myself, ordering a glass of wine, asking for directions. There are many others where I don’t even hesitate. But sometimes, before approaching a completely new situation, I do a quick WordReference search to arm myself with the appropriate vocabulary.
Take, for example, my first Spanish haircut. Yesterday, before going to the hair salon, I looked up the word for layers (rather than saying “I want some pieces in the back to be slightly shorter than the rest”) and split ends (rather than saying “the ends of my hairs are broken and in pieces”). Everything at the salon seemed to be going quite smoothly, until the hairdresser asked me to tip my head forward, and I heard the sound of an electric razor (like the ones men use to trim their beards or sideburns) buzzing over my shoulder. My heart skipped a few beats, and images flashed before my eyes of my long thick curly locks blowing, model-style, in a spring breeze and then lifting completely off my head and off into the horizon. And then another image appeared, that of the currently popular rapada hairstyle here in Spain. In my subsequent moment of panic (did I really say “shave half my head” instead of “I just want a trim and a touch-up on my layers”?!), neither English nor Spanish words came to mind. As I regained my senses, I started to wonder if perhaps this was just the normal way of trimming hair in Spain. I soon realized that Carmen, my stylist, was indeed simply trimming my ends with an electric razor. It would never be my method of choice, but the results seem to be just fine: not the best haircut of my life, but not a train-wreck either. I will note, however, that after consulting with a few Spanish friends, scissors remain the instrument of choice at most Spanish hair salons. I suppose this shows that while I’m functionally bilingual, there are still all sorts of cultural quirks I have yet to learn.