There are two things that could be meant by bilingualism in literature. First of all, it could mean featuring a bilingual character in an otherwise monolingual book, or in some way working a mention of it into the story. Secondly, and I suspect this is the meaning that will spring to most people’s minds, it could refer to a book that has been written in two languages. This could be a text with the same story in either language on opposite pages, or it could be a story that has been purposely written in two languages. Here, we shall look at the first issue.
In the first instance, I think it is important for there to be bilingual characters in literature. Bilingualism is a normal part of life. There are in fact more bilinguals in the world than there are monolinguals, so it is hardly an unusual phenomenon – and even if it were, that would be no reason to exclude it from literature.
Starting from the beginning, from children’s literature, I believe that it is good for children to have characters and situations in books that they can fully relate to. There have been movements to get representation for children with special needs in literature,movements which I fully support and agree with. It is important for children to be able to identify with literary role models; therefore why should bilingual children not be able to identify with a bilingual character?
Not only that, but also monolingual children can benefit: firstly from the normalising of bilingualism, so that they do not consider their bilingual peers unusual or abnormal in any way; and secondly because such devices in literature can help to expose monolingual children to languages, and the idea that it is possible to speak more than one language fluently. Who knows, it may even spark an interest in the language in question and help them on the road to their own linguistic mastery. This is something that is addressed by a few authors, such as Millie Slavidou in her Instaexplorer series, all of which contain something of the local language.
As we go on to adult literature, it is again important to present something that is a normal part of everyday life for so many people. There has in the past, and still in some instances today, been a lot of prejudice against bilingualism. Despite a wealth of evidence pointing to the benefits of bilingualism, parents were and are frequently advised to drop one of their home languages in favour of the dominant community language.
Against such a tide of negativity, literature can play a role in redressing the balance. Normal, ordinary bilingual characters, who are not superheroes or super polyglots, but just regular, believable people, can help to present a positive face of bilingualism. They can help to normalise it in the subconscious of the readers. This is quite apart from the fact that it makes for good reading, as it reflects the reality of the world we live in.
For writers, it can be a very useful plot device. As a multilingual myself, I have frequently been in the middle of situations where I am the only one who has understood everything from all sides, including humour that has left one set of monolinguals baffled while the others roar with laughter. Imagine putting your character in the midst of something like that: what intrigue and mystery could thereby be created!