Bilingualism: 3 questions to expert François Grosjean

François Grosjean is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

François Grosjean

He is bilingual himself (French and English) with more than 30 years of experience in the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors involved in learning and using languages.

I’m extremely honored to welcome him in this article and very grateful he accepted to answer those 3 questions.

 

 

Anne: Can you tell us three little-known facts about bilingualism?

François: The first one is simply that bilinguals, i.e. those who use of two or more languages or dialects in everyday life, are as numerous, if not more so, than monolinguals. Bilinguals can be found in every country of the world, in all social groups, in all age groups.
The second fact is that raising a child bilingual does not delay his/her language learning. Bilingual children meet the stages of language development at the same rate as monolingual children.
And the third fact is that bilingualism brings cognitive advantages to children, as shown by the pioneering work of Professor Ellen Bialystok. These advantages are maintained throughout a bilingual’s life so that, in old age, they help push back age related problems such as dementia.

Anne: If you had one advice to grandparents (especially monolingual grand-parents) about bilingualism what would it be?

François: A bilingual child will develop two or more languages if he/she feels there is a need for those languages and if, among other things, each language receives enough input. I would propose therefore that grandparents work out how best they can help linguistically so as to create a linguistic need in the child for their language and give him/her enough linguistic input. For example, if they live quite close to the parents, and they are speakers of the weaker language (e.g. Italian immigrants in Australia who speak Italian at home), then they could decide with the parents that they would only speak their home language with the child when they are together. And later on, they would help the child learn to read and write in the language, if at all possible. Being bilingual, or multilingual for that matter, does not slow down a child’s academic development. On the contrary, it gives him / her additional linguistic and cognitive advantages.

Note from Anne: François wrote a very touching letter to his first newborn grand-child. A gem of wisdom. (For French speaking readers, the letter is here.)

Anne: What’s the biggest drawback you can think of about being bilingual?

François: Since half the world (or more) is bilingual, I’m always wary of questions such at this one. It’s a bit like asking men what the biggest drawback to being a man is. This said, when I interviewed bilinguals about the advantages and the inconveniences of being bilingual, and even though they mentioned many more advantages, they did also list a few inconveniences. Among them is the fact that not knowing a language well makes communication – spoken or written – tiring and error prone. There are also those who regret having an accent in one of their languages. A few bilinguals state that having to use the “wrong language”, that is the language not usually used in a particular situation, can be difficult and frustrating. Bilinguals also note the inconvenience of being asked to translate and interpret from time to time.

For more information, you can visit François Grosjean’s website and read his blog, Life as a Bilingual. His last book “Bilingual: Life and reality” demystifies bilingualism. It also gives practical tips to parents for passing on one of their richest skills: their language.

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Comments

  1. Luc Arnold says:

    Very nice article, Anne, thank you. I’m always impressed how some people (adults, I mean) are able to learn a new langage in a few month (I’m thinking about a brillant post-doc from Argentina who learned franc during his post-doc in france, of course his english was already excellent).  I don’t know why, but my brain has some serious difficulties to learn new langages. I spent years at school to lern German… and I never could say or write a sentence whitout errors. english is easier, but I know mine is far from fluish when I speak.  writing english is easier, and the result probably better. Why ? probably a question of practice ? I read and write english almost every day, but speak only a few times in the year…

    • Luc, thanks a lot for sharing your experience with foreign languages. You point out 2 determining factors in learning another language: making mistakes and oral practice. According to my experience, both are essential to master another tongue! The trick is to overcome the psychological barrier and speak. As to your admiration for your colleague, he may have benefited from the “transfer hypothesis” developed by Cummins, which states that first language learning “proficiencies” can be transferred to the second language learning context. Our children applied it when they learned English. At least this is what I strongly suppose. They were extremely fast because they could combine their Dutch (roughly 1/2 English, 1/2 German) and their French.

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