3 Questions to Nobel Prize 2012 Serge Haroche

To start 2013 with a (big!) bang, I’m extremely honored to welcome Serge Haroche, Nobel Prize Winner 2012 in Physics.

Serge Haroche receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Dec 2012

Serge Haroche receiving his Nobel Prize in Stockholm (Dec 2012)


Receiving his prize on Dec 10th, 2012 in Stockholm, Serge explained:

“I studied the infinitely small because I was fascinated by the infinitely large: the planets’ movement!”


Serge has been so generous to share with us his experience as a very particular Third Culture Kid (a child who spent a significant part of his childhood outside the parents’ culture).

And you’ll see that in terms of multicultural aspects too, Serge is a man of contrasts.

When I asked Serge about his origins…

Serge: “I was born into a Jewish family, in a Muslim country, Morocco. My father was French, my mother Russian, emigrating when she was 8 years old. My father was born in Morocco and helped to establish the Alliance Française in North Africa and Turkey. The Alliance Française in Morocco played a determining role in transmitting the French culture to all those countries.”

When thinking that culture shock comes from changing countries…

Serge: “My bigger culture shock was when I went to the French primary school in Casablanca. I was speaking and reading Russian fluently at that time but when I entered the school at 6 years old, I stopped completely. I guess it was because I did not want to be different from the other children. Now I can’t remember anything. I lost it completely and I regret it.”

I consulted François Grosjean on this behavior and he confirmed that this attitude is typical of children or adolescents. When bilinguals become aware that the others are not speaking one of their languages or even worse that the language is negatively tainted, they drop it so as to belong to the group. They know on the other hand that they’ll still be understood by their parents so this language becomes unnecessary and even embarrassing.

The next question is: what can research tell us about the possibility of retrieving a language, even decades after?

In this article, François Grosjean provides some clues. According to Noam Chomsky first (that he interviewed in person), even if a person can no longer use a language, he/she can relearn the language much faster than someone who has never known that language.

“There’s got to be a residue of the language somewhere …. You can’t really erase the system”, aldus Chomsky.    Click to tweet

And this is the hope provided by a Swedish study as described here.

The key is reexposure. So, Professor Haroche, it’s a good excuse to seek an invitation from Moscow or St Petersburg University, isn’t it?

When thinking that moving to another country implies discovering a new culture…

Serge: “When Morocco ceased being a French protectorate and acquired its independence in 1956, my parents decided to move to Paris as they were afraid of a culture change (with the Arabisation of the country). I was 12 years old. I came from a French school system in Morocco and joined a French school in Paris. Moving from Morocco to France meant continuity. There was no culture shock. The biggest shock was the climate change!

In this short conversation with Serge Haroche, I learnt three unusual facts:

• Being born in a country heavily influenced by another country sheds another light on the typical expatriate experience.

Culture shock can happen even by remaining in the same country.

• Sometimes moving to a different country is just THE reason to avoid a culture shock.

Now, dear reader, I’d love to hear whether you found this surprising too! Looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.



  1. There are
    many types of multi-linguals and multi-culturals. What is difficult to achieve
    is balanced bilingualism, which is my case and will probably be my kids case but trough a very different process. 

    My personal experience I lived in
    France up to age four, Spain from four and a ½ to six then alternated every two
    three years from France to the the US until my mid-twenties, spending summers
    in the country I had been away from during the school year. Now, I live in
    France (visit the US about every year) with my husband. We have two kids and I only speak English to them.

    bilingualism was achieved by necessity, I was trilingual at age six. Adolescence was  complicated because I switched school systems every time I switched countries (bad idea after primary) and I had a hard time  figuring out if I was American or

    I figured out the answer as an adult, I am neither 100 % ; but asking me
    to choose would be like asking me if I prefer my right leg or my left leg.
    Spanish was forgotten until I studied it in school and I can vouch on the fact
    that it is a language that comes naturally.

    For my kids
    things are different, they didn’t have a need for English therefor after age
    three when they became aware of the difference, resistance started to set in,
    not as far as comprehension went but as far as responding in English. French
    school made things worse. They would speak French all day and come home and
    need to switch. I never gave them a choice but I didn’t like forcing things.
    Today a balance has been found through bilingual schooling, they have friend’s
    that also speak English and they study reading and written English at the same
    time as French. They are happy and at home we enjoy a household that embraces
    all of our cultures. It’s fun and an open window on the world. My youngest tells
    his French friends that he has “travel languages”.

    A very
    important note, parents should definitely be proud of their language and native heritage. If a
    child lives in a country that does not speak the parent’s native language, they should not worry their child will learn the language through school and friends and they should be supportive. However parent’s should speak to their children in their native language or they may threaten the quality of the communication. If one live’s in a country, improving one’s knowledge of the residing country’s
    language is important but one should never disdain their own language. Being proud of it, is essential.

    A friend’s
    little boy who was trilingual, had parent’s from two different continents and
    had lived in four different countries by age six asked his mom one day, what am
    I ? Her answer was pretty “ You are a child of the United Nations”. 

    I strongly believe that learning languages is a way to bring everyone closer.

    • Sabine, thanks so much for your detailed comment. I could not agree more with the fact that parents should be proud of their culture/language. If you’re French in Australia, it’s easy because I noticed to my big surprise that Australians (at least Tasmanians) love France but how do you handle it when you’re living in France and you’re coming from Algeria or living in the Netherlands and coming from Morocco? Or even French living in Flemish Belgium? I’m not talking about racism here. I’m just talking about the way each country views other cultures: in a positive or a negative light (whether this is due to past relationships, religion differences…). You have to be mentally strong enough then as an expatriate to stay faithful to your roots but flexible enough to integrate and not assimilate.

      2013/2/11 Disqus

      • Hi Anne,
        You are right it can be easier for some languages, but I felt it that much more important to comment that parents who raise their kids in a country that is not native for them, may be pressured by people (teachers or even doctors) who have no experience of biculturalism or bilingualism. If it doesn’t feel right, then it should be questioned. Same if a child starts to hate one culture or another discussion is essential, because one does not have to love everything but one must love one’s self and understanding where pain points are is key. Finally, in every country there is something to love.
        Thanks for the article.

    • A quick addition. I just read this articlefrom Pr Grosjean about “Accepting the bicultural person”. It emphasizes your point: biculturalism is not about choosing one culture or the other. It’s about embracing both of them. It’s in French but I know you won’t have any problem reading it 🙂

      2013/2/11 Anne Gillme


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