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Bilingual: Life and Reality

François Grosjean
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Whether in family life, social interactions, or business negotiations, half the people in the world speak more than one language every day. Yet many myths persist about bilingualism and bilinguals. Does being bilingual mean you are equally fluent in two languages, or that you belong to two cultures, or even that you have multiple personalities? Can you become bilingual only as a child? Why do bilinguals switch from one language to another in mid-sentence? Will raising bilingual children confuse and delay their learning of any language? In a lively and often entertaining book, an international authority on bilingualism, son of an English mother and a French father, explores the many facets of bilingualism. In this book, François Grosjean draws on research, interviews, autobiographies, and the engaging examples of bilingual authors. He describes the various strategies—some useful, some not—used by parents raising bilingual children, explains how children easily pick up and forget languages, and considers how bilingualism affects the experience and expression of emotions, thoughts, and dreams. This book shows that speaking two or more languages is not a sign of intelligence, evasiveness, cultural alienation, or political disloyalty. For millions of people, it’s simply a way of navigating the complexities of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05645-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Linguistics, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    As I sit down to work on this book, I marvel at people who are bilingual—that is, who use two or more languages in their everyday life. In the span of a few hours this Monday morning, I bought croissants in French from the baker’s wife, who then served the next client in Swiss German; I accompanied my bilingual wife into town to meet her trilingual Italian-French-German friend; I stopped by my garage to have my car checked by a mechanic of Portuguese origin, who explained to me, in French, how the cooling system worked. While going from one...


    • 1 Why Are People Bilingual?
      (pp. 3-17)

      Out of curiosity, I googled the word “bilingual” and came up with more than 32 million hits (a number that will have increased by the time you read this). I then looked up the ways the word was used and found it in the contexts of bilingual dictionaries, bilingual professions, bilingual people, bilingual laws, bilingual nations, bilingual books, bilingual toys, bilingual studies, bilingual ballots, bilingual databases, bilingual schools, and so on. As I went through the list (I gave up after a few pages), it became clear that the word “bilingual” was being used in many different ways, such as,...

    • 2 Describing Bilinguals
      (pp. 18-27)

      One day, I was sitting at an outdoor café and overheard three people talking about what it means to be bilingual. I pricked up my ears but resisted the temptation to interrupt, even though they were talking about my pet subject. One of them insisted that being bilingual meant being totally fluent in two languages; another agreed and added that the bilingual person also had to have grown up with both languages. The third person was less assertive and mentioned simply the regular use of two languages. “After all,” she asked, “someone might know two languages fluently but almost never...

    • 3 The Functions of Languages
      (pp. 28-38)

      We will begin this chapter with a brief visit to the town of Pomerode, in the state of Santa Catarina in Brazil. In this community of some 20,000 inhabitants, founded by German immigrants from Pomerania in Germany, both German (more precisely, Pomeranian) and Portuguese are spoken by a majority of the population. What is interesting is how the inhabitants distribute their languages across the domains of their lives; some domains are covered by one language, some by the other, and some by both.¹ In certain situations, for example, only Portuguese is used (with the authorities, in clubs, for sports, for...

    • 4 Language Mode and Language Choice
      (pp. 39-50)

      When communicating with others, bilinguals have to ask themselves two questions (which they often do subconsciously): which language should they use, and can they bring their other language(s) into the interaction if they need to? Figure 4.1 illustrates the process of asking—and answering—these questions. To simplify things, the example concerns someone who uses just two languages; we will talk about tri- and quadrilinguals later.

      The bilingual’s two languages, which are visually represented by the squares in the diagram, are inactive (or deactivated) before the interaction (these squares are filled in with diagonal lines). In our example, the bilingual...

    • 5 Code-Switching and Borrowing
      (pp. 51-62)

      We have seen that if a bilingual person is interacting with another bilingual who shares her languages, then a base language will be active during their communication and the other language will also be active, although less so. The bilingual speaker can bring in that other language if the need arises and if she feels comfortable doing so with her interlocutor. Here is an example. A French family is watching some ice fishermen on Walden Pond in the dead of the winter. The young son, Marc, shows real interest in the equipment being used and the fish that are brought...

    • 6 Speaking and Writing Monolingually
      (pp. 63-76)

      When communicating with others, bilinguals are constantly asking themselves—subconsciously most of the time—which language they should use and whether they can bring in another language. When they are in a monolingual language mode—that is, in the presence of monolinguals, or bilinguals who do not share their languages (or with whom they don’t feel they can codeswitch or borrow)—the answer is apparently quite simple: they will have to use the language the others know, and, if possible, they will not let another language intervene. But things are not always straightforward concerning the second point, the presence of...

    • 7 Having an Accent in a Language
      (pp. 77-84)

      Even though very few of us are professional linguists, we all have something to say about a person’s accent. An accent is one of the things that we notice most in someone’s speech and we always have an opinion about it. The issue of accents gets more complicated with bilinguals and their two or more languages, especially because of a popular belief:

      Myth: Real bilinguals have no accent in their different languages.

      The reality for bilinguals is quite different. Having a “foreign” accent in one or more languages is, in fact, the norm for bilinguals; not having one is the...

    • 8 Languages across the Lifespan
      (pp. 85-96)

      In Chapter 2, I stressed how important it is to take into account the language history of bilinguals. To understand an individual bilingual’s language knowledge and use, we need to know, for example, which languages, and language skills, were acquired, as well as when and how. Were the languages acquired at the same time—something that is quite rare—or one after the other? We also need to know about the pattern of language fluency and use over the years. Hence, examining how languages wax and wane during a lifetime, which may well include the learning of new languages and...

    • 9 Attitudes and Feelings about Bilingualism
      (pp. 97-107)

      Almost everyone has something to say about bilingualism. Here are extracts from the testimonies of three bilinguals:

      Dutch-English bilingual: “You are able to communicate with people in different countries.”

      American Sign Language–English bilingual: “Bilingualism gives you a double perspective on the world.”

      German-French-English trilingual: “There is the advantage of being able to read a greater variety of books, of traveling, and of conversing with people directly.”¹

      We will start with a closer examination of the perceptions of bilinguals themselves (positive and negative) and then move on to how monolinguals see bilingualism.

      One major point that comes up often is...

    • 10 Bilinguals Who Are Also Bicultural
      (pp. 108-120)

      Since language is a part of culture and learning a new language may sometimes mean acquiring a new culture, many people share the following false impression of bilinguals:

      Myth: Bilinguals are also bicultural.

      In fact bilingualism is not coextensive with biculturalism. Many people use two or more languages in everyday life while belonging to just one main culture. For example, a Dutch person may use Dutch, English, and German in everyday life but really only live within the Dutch culture. Hence being bilingual does not automatically mean that one is also bicultural. That said, many bilinguals are also bicultural—and...

    • 11 Personality, Thinking and Dreaming, and Emotions in Bilinguals
      (pp. 121-133)

      In Chapter 3, I mentioned how bilinguals deal with well-learned mental processes such as counting, praying, remembering phone numbers, and so on. In this chapter, we will examine some other topics that often come up regarding bilinguals. Do they change personality when they change language? What language do they think in or dream in? And how do they express their emotions? Such questions are fascinating, as are the answers.

      In a news item on 24 June 2008 entitled “Switching Languages Can Also Switch Personality: Study,” Reuters reported on research that supposedly showed that “people who are bicultural and speak two...

    • 12 Bilingual Writers
      (pp. 134-144)

      All groups of people have exceptional members, and it is with pleasure that I mention some of “our” exceptional people in the next two chapters. Few of us bilinguals will become like them (and we don’t need to) but they are, in a linguistic sense, our Edmund Hillarys or Tenzing Norgays, and they have their place in our story.

      In this chapter I will concentrate on bilingual writers, since writing is a specific area of language and probably one of the hardest cognitive skills that humans acquire. The language in which we learn to read and write fluently in our...

    • 13 Special Bilinguals
      (pp. 145-160)

      This book is about regular, everyday bilinguals—that is, the great majority of those who lead their lives with two or more languages. There are, however, special bilinguals who have both a regular and sometimes also a unique relationship with their languages. In the previous chapter, we dealt with bilingual writers. Other special bilinguals, such as second-language teachers, and translators and interpreters, also make a living from their knowledge and use of their languages, while others may depend on their proficiency in their languages to do their job and to assure their safety (secret agents, for example). Among special bilinguals,...


    • 14 In and Out of Bilingualism
      (pp. 163-177)

      As adult speakers, we never fail to be amazed by children who speak a second or a third language. Some four-year-old little girl will tell you something in English and then switch over to Spanish to answer her mother’s question, or a twelve-year-old boy will offer to translate into French what his German friend is saying. How do they do it? we ask ourselves. The next six chapters will offer some answers to this question. In this chapter, I examine cases of children who become bilingual at different moments in their childhood; I also discuss bilingual children who revert to...

    • 15 Acquiring Two Languages
      (pp. 178-190)

      As we know, children become bilingual either by acquiring two languages at the same time (simultaneously) or by acquiring them one after the other (successively). Linguists diverge over the age that separates the two types of acquisition, but most would agree that up to age four, children are in a simultaneous acquisition mode whereas as from age five on they are in a successive mode. Whatever the type of acquisition, the degree of bilingualism attained can be the same. The factors that we examined in the previous chapter condition the extent of a child’s bilingualism and how long the child...

    • 16 Linguistic Aspects of Childhood Bilingualism
      (pp. 191-204)

      When one talks about bilingual children with others, a number of topics invariably turn up: dominance in a language, adapting to the language mode, and language “mixing.” In this chapter we will take up these topics and also discuss bilingual children as natural interpreters. Finally, we will look at how bilingual children play with languages.

      Bilingual children often show signs of dominance in a language. There are several reasons for this, related to whether children acquire their two languages simultaneously or learn one language after the other. When languages are acquired simultaneously, it may happen that certain linguistic constructs are...

    • 17 Family Strategies and Support
      (pp. 205-217)

      Making children bilingual, and keeping them that way, is a responsibility that many families give a lot of thought to. Admittedly, some children “just become bilingual” (I was one of those when I was put into an English boarding school at age eight), but an increasing number of parents are concerned about the approach they should adopt, and the support they should give their children, in order to ease their way into a life with two or more languages. In this chapter, we will discuss the family strategies that are available and the support that bilingual children, and parents, should...

    • 18 Effects of Bilingualism on Children
      (pp. 218-228)

      I sometimes receive e-mails or phone calls from young parents who would like their child to become bilingual but are worried that there might be harmful consequences. Many have heard the following:

      Myth: Bilingualism has negative effects on the development of children.

      I reassure those I interact with, but it is true that because of this view, which is still present in certain circles and countries, some parents hesitate to raise their children to be bilingual, while others worry about the linguistic and cognitive development of their bilingual children. In looking at past studies that established the myth, as well...

    • 19 Education and Bilingualism
      (pp. 229-242)

      When the terms “education” and “bilingualism” are put together in the same phrase, they bring up a topic that is both vast and often controversial, if not explosive in certain countries. Since this book is about bilingualism, we will approach the topic with a particular slant, which is that, if at all possible, education should help children and adolescents acquire a second or third language while retaining their first language (or languages). In addition, again if possible, education should encourage the active use of those languages. This position is not very different from an objective proposed by the United Nations...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 243-246)

    Some ten months have gone by since I wrote the introduction to this book and I am still marveling at people who are bilingual and bicultural. I saw the baker’s wife yesterday when I went to her store, and we spoke French as usual. I wanted to tell her I had just finished a book and that I had mentioned her bilingualism in it, but I decided to wait until it was published. I did tell the car mechanic the other day, though, and he just smiled and moved on to what was wrong with my car. And just this...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 247-270)
  9. Index
    (pp. 271-276)