Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On Bilinguals and Bilingualism: Fifty Years in the Field

François Grosjean

Academics first become interested in a research field in different ways – some by following a course at university, others through listening and talking to motivating speakers, others by events they have lived through, and some simply by accident.

What triggered my interest in bilinguals and bilingualism was my own bilingualism. I started my life as a French monolingual and became bilingual at the age of eight when I was put in an English boarding school in Switzerland. During the ten years that followed, I often reflected on what it means to use two or more languages in everyday life. This led me later to do a Master’s thesis on the topic at the Sorbonne – I wanted to find out about the topic and, indirectly, better understand what I was going through linguistically.

During the ten years that followed, I was busy learning to be an experimental psycholinguist, doing my PhD, starting to publish, and moving and adapting to life in the United States. It was there that I started looking around for a good introductory book to the field. I couldn’t find one and thought that maybe I should write one myself. Oh for the audacity of youth! Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism came out in 1982; it was an entry into a field that was still rather new to me, and it gave me a breadth of knowledge I would not have had otherwise.

Since then, my activities in bilingualism research have resulted in articles, chapters, and books, the cofounding of a new academic journal, a general public blog, lectures and conferences, and interactions of different types. Just in the domain of books, I have written, among others, a textbook, two monographs for a general public, a collection of essays, a compilation of blog posts, and two primers, one with Ping Li, and the other with Krista Byers-Heinlein. All these books, which reported primarily on the research and thinking of numerous colleagues, past and present, probably would not have been possible had I not been myself a researcher in the field.

My name is attached to a number of theories, concepts, and research findings, which colleagues kindly refer to in their own work. It is with this in mind that I thought that a book on my own scientific contributions over the years might be of interest. What was missing, I thought, was a work where I present my contributions in a coherent way. It would be a reflection of what I have attempted to bring to the field, keeping in mind where it stood at the start of my career, and where it stands now.

And so was born this new book, On Bilinguals and Bilingualism, published by Cambridge University Press. The chapters take up the issues that I have worked on over the years. I deal with my holistic view of bilingualism, the bilingual’s language modes, the Complementarity Principle, spoken language processing, cross-linguistic influence, biculturalism, the bilingualism and biculturalism of the Deaf, the statistics of bilingualism, and special bilinguals. In each chapter I refer briefly to the literature that I found when I started, I describe the concept, theory, or findings that I proposed, I add some follow-up comments when appropriate, and give some reactions from colleagues, as well as describe replications and extensions when the work was experimental. Hopefully, with each chapter, the reader will have a good grasp of the issue as I presented it and of how it has weathered with time since it was first proposed.

The last chapter is slightly different. Since bilingualism and biculturalism are so widespread, and have important social consequences, I have communicated about them to the general public, and to parents and professionals involved with bilingual children and adolescents. I refer to the books, articles, and interviews done specifically for them; I relate how I blogged about bilingualism on the Psychology Today website for some ten years, five of them with Aneta Pavlenko (some 2.5 million readers have visited the blog); and I defend the position that has been mine on the right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual.

When communicating about bilingualism with the outside world, I have always tried to be careful in what I say, not overstating certain facts, avoiding categorical statements, and sticking closely to reliable and replicable results. Even in my text on the right of the deaf child to be bilingual, clearly an advocacy paper, I left open that the bilingualism of deaf children can be of various types: some children will be dominant in sign language, others will be dominant in the oral language, and some will be balanced in their two languages.

Extensive research on bilingualism is still rather new and one has to keep an open mind on present and future findings, be they in fundamental research, or in applied fields. In addition, bilinguals are extremely diverse and what is true of one group may not be of another, or only partially true. The road leading to an in-depth understanding of bilingualism will be long, sometimes tortuous, but always fascinating; I am grateful to have journeyed on it during my career.

On Bilinguals and Bilingualism 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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