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Interview with François Grosjean

 

François Grosjean is professor emeritus at Neuchâtel University , Switzerland, where he founded

the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and

Cognition (Cambridge University Press).

Today he's talking to Italobimbi and its readers.

 

 

Professor Grosjean, your most recent book “Bilingual” is dedicated to a number of people “who became bilingual unintentionally and live(d) their lives with two or more languages”. Who is bilingual, according to you? (Giovanna - Italobimbi)

As readers of my book will notice, the dedication, which is a very personal part of any book, is addressed primarily to eight people who, in fact, are ancestors of mine as well as family members. They all became bilingual unintentionally but this does not mean that ALL bilinguals acquire their languages in an unintentional manner. I know of many bilinguals who were brought up specifically with two or more languages. In the Introduction I state that I have a very general readership in mind made up of those who are interested in bilingualism or involved, in one way or another, with bilinguals. I also have the aim of offering bilinguals a book about who they are. As for how I define bilinguals, I am influenced by two illustrious researchers in the generation before mine, Uriel Weinreich and William Mackey: Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives. 

Do you have an explanation for the fact that bilingual brothers or sisters who grew up in the same family, under the same conditions and who go to the same school, show nonetheless different skills/preference towards their languages? (a bilingual children’s dad)

This is a well known phenomenon. As a second child arrives, then maybe other children, conditions do change, in fact. For example, the older child will interact with the younger one(s) and when they do so, the language(s) adopted will get reinforced. In the end, the language(s) used among the children will have a strong impact on the maintenance or loss of a language. The linguistic habits of parents will also change when they start realizing that one of the children may not understand all that is being said in a particular language. There is also the fact that as children grow older and start going to school, the outside (school) language is reinforced. So even though at first sight the conditions seem to be the same, they are not and the family's languages will definitely be affected.

 Research demonstrates that bilinguals are able to choose to be in a bilingual or a monolingual mode: what would your advice be to parents of bilingual children who have the tendency to mix languages?

In my book, "Bilingual", I deal with this question in the chapter entitled "Family strategies and support". I propose that if at all possible, children must be able to find themselves, at various times, in a monolingual mode in each of their languages. This means that, unlike in the home, where at least one parent is bilingual (if not two) and mixing often occurs, children should come into regular contact with monolingual speakers of each language. That way, they will quickly learn when to speak a particular language in a specific situation and, if the mode is indeed monolingual, such as when the people around them do not know the other language(s), then they will deactivate one of their languages and thereby reduce their mixing. I am thinking here of children who are at least three years old. Before then, language mixing may occur while language differentiation is taking place.

According to your complementarity principle, different domains of life are covered by different languages in bilinguals. Is it in the interest of bilinguals to cover most domains with both (all of) his/her languages? Why or why not?

It is rare that all the languages of a bilingual cover, independently, all domains of life such as parents, siblings, distant relatives, studies or work, sports, religion, shopping, friends, going out, hobbies and so on. In fact, languages will usually distribute themselves across different domains even though there will also be domains covered by two or even three languages. This is a fact of bilingual life and I'm not sure whether outside intervention can change things radically unless there is a major restructuring of the bilingual's languages. It should be recalled that there must be a need for a language in a particular domain, and enough input, for that language to start covering it adequately. If the right psychosocial conditions are met, then new domains can start being covered by a language but care will then have to be taken to maintain the language in that domain.

You focused a relevant part of your research on psycholinguistic aspects of bilingualism. How do bilinguals express emotions? In which languages do they dream?

Psycholinguistics is, in fact, a vast domain that covers the perception, comprehension and production of language, as well as its acquisition and memorization. Concerning emotions, there is a myth that bilinguals express their emotions in their first language (when they haven't acquired both languages simultaneously), usually the language of their parents. This is sometimes the case but the relationship between emotions and bilingualism is much more complex than that. Basically, it is too simplistic to suggest that late bilinguals have emotional ties only with their first language and no ties with their other languages. What one finds is that expressing emotions in two or more languages has no set rules; some bilinguals prefer to use one language, some the other, and some both. As for dreaming, in the small survey I undertook, some two thirds of the bilinguals and trilinguals questioned said that they dreamed in one or the other language, depending on the dream (when a language was involved, of course). The  complementarity principle is clearly at work here: depending on the situation and the person we are dreaming about, we will use the one language, the other, or both.

Bilingualism and biculturalism: What’s the difference between being bilingual and being bicultural?

Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives. Biculturals, on the other hand, take part in the life of two or more cultures, adapt their attitudes, behaviors, values and so on to these cultures, and combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved. Contrary to general belief, bilingualism and biculturalism do not always go hand in hand. People can be bilingual without being bicultural (e.g. Europeans who use two or more languages in their everyday lives but who live in only one country and within one culture), and people can be bicultural without being bilingual (such as British expatriates who have lived in the United States for many years). But of course, many bilinguals are also bicutural; they use two or more languages in their everyday lives and they navigate within and between their different cultures.

You did research in a very specific field: gender marking in bilinguals. Can you talk about the results you obtained?

This was a speech perception study in which my colleague, Delphine Guillemon, and I examined the perception of short phrases such as "le joli bateau" as compared to "*la jolie bateau" where a gender marking error exists. We tested early and late English-French bilinguals and found that late bilinguals, at least in perception, were insensitive to gender incongruency; that is, when compared to "leur joli bateau", it did not take them any longer to process the phrase with the wrong gender. Early bilinguals and French monolinguals were, of course, delayed by the gender error. We concluded that there is probably a sensitive period to acquire a gender perception mechanism and that late bilinguals, whose first language (English in our case) does not have gender marking of this type, missed it and could not master it later on. But, of course, they made up for it in other ways and their overall perception was as good as that of the early bilinguals.

Despite his parent’s efforts, Giorgio, (almost 3) is an Italian-Belgian child living in Italy who speaks fairly good Italian but seems a bit lazy when it comes to French. How long can this attitude last and what else can be done to motivate him? (Anne, Giorgio's mum)

I am afraid that I do not know Giorgio nor the language environment he lives in, so my response will be general. The main factor that leads to the acquisition and the maintenance of a language is the need for that language - the need to interact with others, to play, study or work, to take part in other activities and so on. If the need for a language is present, then language acquisition will usually take place and the language will be maintained (especially if the child finds him/herself in a monolingual mode where there is no other solution but to use that particular language). Other factors must also be present: enough language input and use; the help of family, friends, and the community in general; formal language learning for some; and positive attitudes towards the language and culture in question, as well as towards bilingualism.

I’m an Italian native speaker, grown up in Italy but I’ve attended a French school. People suggest I should now speak French with my two young children, although I’m fairly satisfied with their good level of Italian and their good feeling for languages? What do you reckon? (Esmeralda)

Again it is difficult for me to answer specifically as I do not know the language situation of this family (e.g. Is Italian the home language? Is French the outside language?). What I would say to any parent is that if the linguistic situation in a family is satisfactory then there is no real need to change it. Children will learn other languages in school - either as subjects or within a bilingual program - and, thanks also to visits abroad later on, they will be able to anchor those languages. It should be remembered that one can become bilingual at any time during one's life. 

Bilinguals with two linguistically related languages (e.g. Italian-Spanish) find it more difficult to keep them separate, since interferences occur more frequently. Is there an explanation at a mental level for this? (Carolina)

Lexical interferences are probably due to the proximity of words that are similar  (semantically, phonetically or graphically) in the mental lexicon. They belong to similar networks and those of another language become activated when a bilingual speaks or writes a given language. In my book, I state that interferences, also called transfers, follow bilinguals throughout their lives, however hard they try to filter them out. They are, in a sense, their uninvited hidden companions!

 

 

 

Italobimbi and its readers would like to thank professor Grosjean for his time and his valuable advices! 

François Grosjean has a blog "Life as a bilingual" on the Psychology Today web site. It can be found at the following address: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual

 

He also has a website where he has posted several short papers on bilingualism: www.francoisgrosjean.ch

 

For the Italian translation of this interview, please click here.

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