Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Life as a Bilingual: Part 1

François Grosjean

Who could have imagined this kind of success for a scientific blog on bilingualism?

In 2016, François Grosjean was interviewed about his Psychology Today blog, “Life as a bilingual”, by Ewa Haman, Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. The Polish translation appeared under the title, “Nie mógłbym nawet marzyć o takiej liczbie czytelników” on dwujęzyczność.info.

Why did you choose to write a blog for Psychology Today?

When Carlin Flora, Editor at Psychology Today, wrote to me in the summer of 2010 to ask me if I would be willing to have a blog on bilingualism, I asked for a few weeks to think about it. The reason was that as an academic I mainly write scholarly papers, chapters, and books. Blog posts seemed a bit short at first (800-1000 words per post as compared to tens of pages for papers!) and maybe a bit too personal (I am more used to using the passive voice in my academic writing than the active voice). But then I looked around and saw, among others, David Crystal’s very successful blog on English linguistics. Here was a well-known academic, author and lecturer, who had been blogging for several years and doing so most successfully.

I also asked colleagues and friends what they thought and received many supportive messages. For example, Aneta Pavlenko, professor at Temple University, wrote to me that it would be a great way to popularize bilingualism as an interesting and important topic relevant to many lives in today’s globalized world. (It should be noted that Aneta joined me on the blog three and half years later and we are now both writing posts for it).

Since I was no longer teaching and I missed it, I thought it would be enjoyable to write introductory posts about various aspects of bilingualism for a general audience. So I accepted Carlin Flora’s offer and became a member of the Psychology Today blogger group. We were some 500 bloggers back then and are currently more than 750 writing about all kinds of topics in the many areas of psychology.

Is there room for a scientific blog on bilingualism?

There are numerous blogs on bilingualism, many of them written by parents of bilingual children,  and they are important for families who wish to follow in their footsteps and who are looking for support. But often parents are not themselves researchers in the field of bilingualism and do not always fully understand scientific papers. Those involved directly in that scholarly work can therefore play a crucial role in getting that knowledge out and explaining their own studies, and those of their colleagues.

I have worked in the field of bilingualism for many years – I started off with a Master’s thesis on bilingualism – and I have always wanted to put to rest the many myths that surround bilingualism as well as tell the general public about findings in our field. There is also the need to reassure bilinguals about their own bilingualism and to give those involved with children (parents, educators, speech / language pathologists, etc.) some basic knowledge about growing up with two or more languages. Hopefully, it will help them understand why and how bilingual children behave the way they do, e.g. develop a dominant language, show a language-person bond, refuse to speak a particular language at some point, mix their languages in certain situations, etc. I used books at first to inform those interested in the topic ­- I have written five books on the subject – but a blog can reach so many more people. After five years, more than 900,000 readers have come to the “Life as a bilingual” site, a number I could never have dreamed of with my books.

Finally, there is the need to constitute a small on-line resource on the bilingual person, adult and child, that people can come back to at any time. So far, “Life as a bilingual” has more than a 100 posts that can be consulted by anyone throughout the world (see here for a list by content).

What is the most difficult thing when writing a post for a popular science blog?

I love the challenge of having only 800-1000 words to present, as clearly as possible, the very essence of a topic and I thank belatedly my English teachers during my youth in England who made us do “précis” exercises each week. I didn’t like them at the time but they have proved to be extremely useful when you have to summarize two or three scholarly papers in such a small space.

This said, since the blog concerns every aspect of the bilingual adult and child, I often have to work hard to prepare a post that does not touch on my areas of expertise directly. This requires reading several articles, contacting one or two researchers, and then writing the post so that it tells an interesting story. It is far more work than appears at first.

There is also the question of finding a photo that fits the post since Psychology Today requires that posts be accompanied by photos. Not only must the photo be adequate but one must obtain permission to reproduce it – not always an easy task!

What are your private criteria for successful posts?

Successful posts are those that cover a particular topic well, where the message is clear, the data is clean, and our knowledge of the bilingual person, adult or child, has moved forward a bit because of it. They are not necessarily the ones that obtain the most hits though. For example, in a post entitled, Perceptual insensibility in a second language, I show how certain processing mechanisms in a second language may not be acquired (or only partly acquired) if the language is learned later in life. Of course, other processing routes will be used by late bilinguals, and they will process their second language well, but it won’t be the ones found in early bilinguals. This particular post, based on hard evidence, did fairly well but not as well as expected.

On the other hand, posts that I would characterize as simply satisfactory have done extremely well. One example is Those incredible interpreters which has proved to be the most successful post on the blog with close to 90,000 readers. Clearly interpreters feel encouraged by it and pass it on to others.

Some of the posts I really enjoyed writing are those which deal in a more personal way with actual people: one is on an outstanding bilingual academic couple I knew (The rose), another is on a person I would have loved to have met when she lived in Paris with her husband (Falling in love with a culture and a language), and finally there is the letter I wrote to my first grandchild when he was born (Born to be bilingual).

Why do you think the general public should be informed about scientific findings on bilingualism?

First, language is part of our everyday life and we need to inform the general public about findings in the language sciences. Then, since about half of the world is bilingual, and studies on bilinguals have been far less numerous than those on monolinguals until recently, we have the added duty of communicating our results on bilinguals not only to our colleagues but also to people who might be interested in them.

I am also convinced that some findings can change our attitudes towards those who live with two or more languages and the way we nurture bilingual children and educate them. Let me give one example. We have known for some time that bilingual children have as many words as their monolingual counterparts when both languages are taken into account but maybe not so when one examines each of their languages separately. Why is that? Quite simply because they are exposed to their languages in different environments and with different people – what I have called the Complementarity Principle. They will often encounter specific items in a context where only one language is used and this decreases the number of words they finally acquire in each language (see a post on this here).

The Complementarity Principle, a notion I developed more than twenty years ago, accounts for many other phenomena in bilingualism such as the ultimate fluency one attains in a language (at least at the lexical level), automatic language behaviors such as counting and praying (often done in just one language), the need to switch languages when the “wrong language” is used, the difficulty bilinguals have with translating, and so on.

What advice would you give to researchers who strive to translate basic research into interesting and readable posts?

Not all research has a direct impact on everyday life and one must accept that. But some findings can play a role in our lives as bilinguals, or in the lives of bilingual children, whilst others can change our attitudes towards bilingualism. We should then try to communicate them to a general public.  

The person who writes about a finding must understand it fully and must be able to replace it in its context. He or she must also describe it clearly, without too much jargon, and show the impact it has on our everyday life. It is no simple task but if the researcher is also a good teacher, and enjoys explaining things to students, then there is a good chance that he or she will be able to write a clear and informative post.

Would you consider popularizing research to be a kind of duty of every researcher?

I strongly believe that as active researchers we should inform the general public of our research. For too long this has been left to specialized journalists who simply cannot understand the field they are reporting on as well as those involved in it directly. Some journalists may even hype up the story which in the end does more harm than good to our science. I give an example of this in the post, Does processing differently mean more efficiently? It is the duty of researchers, therefore, to communicate with the outside world in a clear, comprehensible, and balanced manner, so that their findings, at least the more important ones, become part of common  knowledge. 

Could you give some examples of how findings in research on bilingualism have influenced everyday practice? There are many but let me just take one. When I started working on the sign language of the Deaf, I realized that many signing Deaf were in fact bilingual, in sign language and in an oral language, usually in its written modality. I investigated this further and quickly came to the conclusion that the education of deaf children should be bilingual. It is the optimal combination of a sign and an oral language that will allow these children to meet their many needs, that is, communicate early with their parents (first in sign and then, with time, also in the oral language), develop their cognitive abilities, acquire knowledge of the world, communicate fully with the surrounding world, and acculturate into their two worlds. This led me to write a short text, “The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual”, which since then has travelled around the world and has been translated into 35 different languages! It has also encouraged the bilingual education of deaf children. I talk about this in a post on my blog (see here).

For an update on the blog, and the book based on it, see “Life as a Bilingual: Part 2.”

Life as a Bilingual by François Grosjean

About The Author

François Grosjean

François Grosjean is a psycholinguist and a recognized world expert on bilingualism. He has authored numerous publications including fourteen books, one of which, Bilingualism: Li...

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