Note: Below my review of Bilingual: Life and Reality is a short, insightful interview with the author. Dr. Grosjean kindly responded, via email, to several questions I had in connection with his book.
An irony is apparent in the fact that bilingualism is so prevalent in our world today—and will surely become even more widespread in the future—and yet, on the whole, the subject is discussed far less than might be expected. Granted, there are some books and blogs geared to parents raising bilingual children; some books, journals, and sites more academic in nature; and some coverage in the media (which seems to be increasing). Still, this attention feels disproportionately small when the phenomenon of bilingualism now touches more than half of the human family.
One unfortunate consequence of this situation is the significant lack of understanding among the general public when it comes to bilingualism. Raising bilingual children can be challenging enough without the additional obstacles presented by misguided input from others who are often only repeating “myths” that have continued to persist despite hard evidence to the contrary.
Debunking such myths of bilingualism (like “Bilingualism will delay language acquisition in children” or “Bilingualism has negative effects on their development”) is at the heart of François Grosjean’s lively and informative book Bilingual: Life and Reality. Dr. Grosjean, Professor Emeritus at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and a noted international authority in the field, seeks to demystify the nature of bilingualism through personal anecdote and persuasive research, ultimately producing the best, most comprehensive primer on the subject for parents wishing to broaden their knowledge of these issues.
Those familiar with Dr. Grosjean’s blog, Life as a Bilingual, at the Psychology Today website will recognize his graceful style in explaining what can be difficult subject matter in clear, friendly prose. Even when discussing complex issues, the book remains readable and engaging.
Bilingual: Life and Reality is divided into two main sections: Part 1: Bilingual Adults; and Part 2: Bilingual Children. For parents raising their children with two or more languages, the first part provides a larger context for the bilingual journey—since our bilingual children will be bilingual adults before we know it!—while the second part addresses issues involving bilingual child-rearing more directly.
In this second section, which includes such chapters as “Acquiring Two Languages,” “Family Strategies and Support,” and “Effects of Bilingualism on Children,” Dr. Grosjean looks at a range of issues involved in raising bilingual children and offers sound and useful guidelines for parents.
For instance, in “Acquiring Two Languages,” Dr. Grosjean explores the nature of children learning two languages at the same time (simultaneous bilingualism) and two languages sequentially (successive bilingualism) then underscores his discussion with this practical conclusion which lies at the heart of bilingual success:
“In sum, the crucial factors for becoming bilingual as a child, at whatever age, are the need for the new language, as well as the amount and type of input, the role of the family and the schools, and the prevailing attitudes toward the language and the culture and toward bilingualism as such.”
François Grosjean has long been a champion of raising awareness of bilingualism, and with this important book he has performed an invaluable service in seeking to dispel the many lingering myths which can burden the experience of raising or working with bilingual children.
Bilingual: Life and Reality is a wise, warm overview of the subject and I recommend it highly, not only to parents and teachers, but to the general public as well. Dr. Grosjean’s book is a much-needed resource for homes and libraries, and I hope it will be read widely and help advance accurate, positive perceptions of bilingualism around the world.
Questions for François Grosjean
After reading Bilingual: Life and Reality, I was curious to learn more about the myths of bilingualism, so I reached out to Dr. Grosjean. He was kind enough to respond to my questions in enlightening detail.
Dr. Grosjean, in your book you mention a variety of persistent myths involving bilingualism. Why do you think these negative perceptions have been so difficult to dispel?
I strongly believe that accepting bilingualism as it is has been hindered by a view of the world founded on the nation-state concept, that is, one nation, one language, one culture. For centuries, it was accepted that societies were, in fact, multilingual and multicultural, as were many of their inhabitants. But then, in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, it was felt by many that nations couldn’t be nations if they didn’t have just one culture and one language. The social and human sciences espoused this view for a number of years and hence they concentrated their studies on people who were monolingual and monocultural. Many myths such as that bilingualism is a rare phenomenon, bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages, mixing languages is a sign of laziness, bilinguals have double or split personalities, bilingualism has negative effects on the development of children, etc. are the by-products of this monolingual/monocultural bias.
From your perspective, would you say that the tide is turning when it comes to these myths and global attitudes toward bilingualism?
I am convinced that the tide is slowly turning, but for the time being it is still a groundswell led by individuals such as academics (new generations of linguists, psychologists and sociologists), parents, concerned citizens, and, of course, bi- and multilinguals themselves. It will take time for “monolingual” societies to change profoundly so that, one day, they will acknowledge officially that they are made up of monolingual, bilingual and multilingual citizens, who belong to one or to several cultures. Some have already reached that point; others are on the way; others still have hardly started.
What advice would you offer to parents who are facing difficulties as a result of others’ negative perceptions of their desire to raise bilingual children?
I’ll answer more as a concerned citizen than as an academic. First, I would read up a bit about bilingualism so as to understand a number of basic facts about acquiring, and living with, two or more languages. This will not only help parents of bilingual children in their everyday efforts to make, and keep, their children bilingual, but it will also help them respond to questions, some negative, that others might ask.
Second, I would join support groups, in the real world or on the web, so as to talk about aspects related to bringing up children with two or more languages. Any support one can get is crucial when raising bilingual children.
Third, I would get involved in the functioning of my local school, if at all possible, to get it to be more open to bi- and multilingualism and to think about improving its second language offerings and even opening up immersion (dual language) classes. The time children spend in school, and the influence they receive from teachers and peers, have a profound impact on whether these bilingual children maintain their bilingualism or shift over to monolingualism.
And learn the remarkable personal story of his life at…
The winner of the giveaway is in, chosen by the grubby hand of a six-year-old boy from an empty tub of Lego! (Insert drum roll here…) It’s Christina from Northern Ireland, now residing in China! Congratulations, Christina! And a warm thanks to all those who entered the giveaway (80 people!) and shared your thoughts on raising bilingual kids. I really enjoyed reading each comment and I regret I can’t give away more books. But I’ll be back with another contest before too long!
To enter the giveaway, just follow these simple steps…
1. Entry is open to all subscribers of my free newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, please prance ahead to step 2. If you’re not yet a subscriber, just click the big link below to enter your name and email address. The weekly newsletter is an important part of my efforts to encourage parents to stay as conscious and proactive as possible, day by day. (You can learn more about the newsletter—as well as the fun download for subscribers—at the Subscribe page.)
2. Share this post with others, any way you like. Help me spread the word on Dr. Grosjean’s fine book by sharing the link to this post in some way:
- via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.)
- through email (just click the email button to your left)
- by opening your window and shouting the URL to passersby in the street
Seriously, please share this post before you continue with step 3. I’m using the “honor system” here, but if you skip this step, I bet you’ll lie awake in bed tonight feeling guilty!
This is the URL—just copy and paste!
3. Leave a comment below with the following information. (And please proofread your comment, before submission, to check that the information is complete.)
2. Your children’s ages (Example: Girl, 9 and Boy, 6)
3. Your two (or more) languages (Example: Japanese and English)
4. Complete this sentence: Raising bilingual children is _______. (Example: Raising bilingual children is equal parts exhaustion and joy.)
4. All entries must be submitted by the morning of Tuesday, February 25 (Japan time). On that day, the comments will be printed out and cut apart to serve as entry slips for the drawing. The slips will be placed in my son’s big, empty tub of Lego (because his millions of Lego pieces are always strewn on the floor instead), and I’ll ask him to reach in and randomly pull out one lucky winner. I’ll then contact the winner and update this post with the results.
I won’t respond to your comments here, but I do look forward to reading them. Thank you for entering the giveaway, and for sharing this information about Dr. Grosjean’s book with others.