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How many languages?

Autumn, acrylics on wood, 6 years


Other considerations about the interview with Antonella Sorace


How many languages?

It 's a dilemma for many families who live in an international context.


This is obviously a "luxury" problem compared to the problem that most parents promoters of bilingualism must face. Here in Luxembourg we are forced to limit the number of languages, to make choices according to our priorities. Italobimbi’s motto, "We have to know who we are to be able to feel ourselves citizens of the world " is inspired by our own local situation, even if it is applicable in varying degrees to other realities. The phenomenon of bilingualism in Luxembourg, however, takes much more varied aspects than in most parts of the rest of the world.

Our children have easy access to many languages​​. What a luck, you will say ... in a sense, yes! Many children with 4 already know how to express themselves in at least 4 languages​​! And they also have all they need to integrate into the local community. Compared to other peers whose languages ​are limited to the home ​and the kindergarden language (being fluent in "only" two languages​​, for example), Those with 4 languages definitely have an advantage.

However, Sorace emphasizes that the more languages ​​come into play the more the child will have to "share his attention" among them. It 's obvious that a multilingual child will be exposed to a limited number of hours of each language, other than the bilingual child whose world is so far "only" divided into two groups of speakers.

Now, according to studies conducted in the field, there are various stages to ensure a native speaker level in language learning, depending to the flexibility of our brain that gradually decreases until it reaches a point where learning takes on different characteristics and it is no longer able to attain proficiency levels.

Scholars also point out that age ranges are of course approximate because much depends on the individual, on his innate talent for languages ​​and on a number of external factors.

Grosjean speaks about the complementarity principle according to which every language is developed based on of the individual needs at a certain  time. In every period of a person’s life a map of his  linguistic situation can be drown. The circumstances allow the  development of some language areas which are unlikely to be entirely covered by all the languages known by ​​the bilingual. Some areas are better known in one language, others in another, with some overlapping fields.

In conclusion, the perfectly balanced bilingual, Antonella Sorace also reminds us, is quite rare, indeed, the balance between the language of a person may change in different periods of his life. However, the greater the incentives and motivation, the greater the chances of achieving proficiency levels when this becomes necessary. 

Sorace evidences the phenomenon of bilingual behavior depending on his interlocutor being bilingual or monolingual. The bilingual brain has a metalinguistic training, that means, it’s constantly changing language, making an effort that is rarely done by a monolingual brain. This flexibility is a valuable cognitive resource for our brain and will help to prevent neurological deterioration due to aging.

Grosjean speaks about "language mode" to indicate the activation status of the bilingual's languages ​​and the language processing mechanisms in a given situation.

The study of the language behavior phenomenon in bilinguals goes back to Weinreich (1966), Grosjean has developed the concept theorizing an activation scale of the languages ​​in the bilingual brain. If the interlocutor is himself bilingual, the bilingual can give free rein to interferences, alternations or code-switching elements that will become useful to the conversation.

When, however, the bilingual wishes to minimize interference (code-switching and others), the activation of his second language will be reduced to a minimum level, nevertheless it will not be completely switched off. According to Grosjean, the bilingual brain remains active in both languages, even when it is in its monolingual mode.


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