Conversation with Dr. François Grosjean, Professor & Researcher on Bilingualism, and Author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality”

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Friends, today I have the honor of sharing with you a recent conversation I had with the preeminent researcher in the area of bilingualism, Dr. François Grosjean, Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland).

I was first introduced to Dr. Grosjean during my time in graduate school while pursuing a Master’s degree in linguistics. I became reacquainted with his research and writings when I became a mom and my husband and I decided to raise our daughter, E., now 13 months, bilingually (Spanish and English). If you’ve been following my blog for the past few months you may remember this post and this one, in which I refer to Grosjean’s research, as well as the review I wrote on his book Bilingual: Life and Reality.

Merci, Dr. Grosjean, for graciously taking the time to share your expertise with us today. Be encouraged, friends.

bilingual bilingualism grosjean espanolita language linguistics interview research language acquisitionCould you give readers who might not be familiar with your background and work an overview of your research expertise, as well as your own personal journey in bilingualism?

I am Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) and started working on bilingualism in 1967 when I was preparing my Master’s Thesis at the University of Paris. Since then I have researched the psycholinguistics of bilingualism and biculturalism, and am the author of numerous articles on the topic as well as of five books. I also cofounded an international academic journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition and have been blogging on bilingualism for Psychology Today these last years. More information about my career can be found on my website.

As for my personal journey in languages and cultures, I started off as a French monolingual child and became bilingual at age eight when I was put into English boarding schools, first in Switzerland and then in England. I also acquired Italian as an adolescent, but have since forgotten much of it, and later, when I was an academic in the USA, I learned some American Sign Language.

Your book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, is an invaluable resource for bilinguals, as well as for parents who are raising their children in more than one language. (I love it and have recommended it to many others.) What inspired you to write a book on bilinguals, for bilinguals?

Thank you for your kind words about my book. When I started working on bilingualism, there were very few general public books on the subject, and even fewer that gave the bilingual’s point of view. In addition, much of what had been written about bilinguals had a monolingual slant, i.e. the monolingual was the norm and the bilingual the exception. So throughout my writing career, in addition to presenting the latest research findings concerning bilingualism, including some of my own, I have tried to give the bilingual’s viewpoint. And when bilinguals tell me that they enjoy my articles and books, and that some have even accepted their own bilingualism because of what I have written, I am simply thrilled.bilingual bilingualism espanolita

Of particular interest to me from this book is your discussion of bilinguals as constantly on a language continuum, that our language abilities wax and wane over time, depending on our current situation. How can this concept help parents raising bilingual children better understand and help their children?

It’s important for parents to keep in mind that children can become bilingual, even multilingual, in a very short time, but that they can also revert back to monolingualism very quickly. I mention a few cases in my book. This is because the main factor leading to the development of a language is the need for that language – to communicate, to participate in activities, to interact with people and friends, etc. The child has to feel that he or she really needs a particular language in order to acquire it and use it. If the need disappears, or isn’t really there, then the child may no longer use the language, and may ultimately forget it. Other important factors in favor of maintaining a language are the type and amount of language input, the role of the family, the school and the community, and attitudes towards the language and the culture involved.

I am fascinated by what you call the “Complementarity Principle.” You discuss it on your blog, and I wrote about how it plays out in my own life on my blog. Would you talk about it a bit more with my readers?

The Complementarity Principle is the fact that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Basically, different aspects of life require different languages. The principle has an impact on many aspects of bilingualism. For example, bilinguals often do not develop equal and total fluency in all their languages because the need for, and uses of, these languages are usually quite different. This is also true for certain language skills, such as reading and writing. Many bilinguals have not had to read and write in one of their languages and hence have not developed those skills. Well-learned behaviors such as counting, praying, singing, remembering phone numbers, etc. are also governed by the principle.

Bilingualism has received a lot of attention in the popular media lately, particularly as it relates to the brain and cognitive advantages it provides to young children (over monolinguals). I’d love to hear your take on this issue, from a research perspective.

The popular media are definitely “pushing” the many cognitive advantages of bilingualism but one has to be very careful not to go too far. Whenever I am asked about this topic, I think back to what Ellen Bialystok and Xiaojia Feng stated in one of their papers in 2010, that is that studies in fact show a complex portrait of interactions between bilingualism and skill acquisition in which there are sometimes benefits for bilingual children, sometimes deficits, and sometimes no consequence at all. We should give research time to delve into these issues and come to a final conclusion. But this in no way takes away from the well-established benefits of knowing and using two or more languages such as being able to communicate with people of different cultures, being able to read and write in several languages (at least for some bilinguals), having more job opportunities in countries where other languages are used, and so on.

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What are new and exciting research studies in the field that my readers should be aware of?

If I may, I would invite your readers to come to my blog on Psychology Today, especially the latest posts, to see for themselves what is new and exciting in the field of bilingualism (see here for a list by content areas). For example, I have dealt with topics such as whether a first language can be totally forgotten, the bilingual mind and brain, the cognitive advantages of second language immersion programs, memory and bilingualism, how parents can foster languages in their bilingual child, why some people retain an accent in their other language, whether changing language triggers a change in personality, etc. The blog has been available for more than four years now and has received close to 650,000 visitors so far.

You yourself raised your children bilingually. What are some of the resources you and your family have found most useful, both for parents and for children?

A few months ago, I wrote a post on my blog, “Keeping a language alive”, which was strongly influenced by our own experience. You can find it here. As you’ll see, in addition to assuring varied and sufficient input in the language that needs the most support, a family has to create a real communicative need for the language. For example, it can enforce a home language convention where only that language is used, and it can look around for other environments where the language will be used naturally – in play groups, with family members and friends, etc. And, in some cases, it can encourage longer visits of family members who only use that language, and organize trips to the country or the region when the language is normally used. All this can be demanding, but the ultimate reward is wonderful, both for the parents and the children in question.

Please join the conversation with Dr. Grosjean: leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you. Happy Monday!

8 thoughts on “Conversation with Dr. François Grosjean, Professor & Researcher on Bilingualism, and Author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality”

  1. Thanks for this interview! It’s a main concern in expat life as many of us have been moving abroad many times. Language and communication are a key issue.


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