Extracts from Bilingual: Life and Reality – Introduction

by expert · 3 comments

It is our great honor at Multilingual Living to publish this series of extracts from Professor François Grosjean’s new book Bilingual: Life and Reality, which has been nominated for the Edward Sapir Book Prize 2010.  Prof. Grosjean knows intimately what he writes about: not only is he “one of the grand old men of research on bilingualism” but is himself bilingual.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, we will be presenting extracts from the introductory chapter as well as six chapters on childhood bilingualism.  The information presented is intended to dispel the myriad of myths that abound about bilingualism as well as give us a glimpse into the life of someone who has spent a lifetime living and researching the life of bilinguals.

In addition, we encourage readers to read Prof. Grosjean’s Q & A series as his answers are packed with information and wisdom.  For more information about Prof. Francois Grosjean, please visit his website as well as his Psychology Today blog.

Introduction of Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean
– Part One –

Ater publishing my books Life with Two Languages and Studying Bilinguals and many scholarly papers, I felt the need to write the simple, basic introduction (to bilingualism) I had been looking for as a young man.

Even though the phenomenon is widespread, bilingualism as a topic is still unfamiliar to most people. In addition, bilingualism is surrounded by a number of myths: bilinguals are rare and have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages; real bilinguals have acquired their two or more languages in childhood and have no accent in either of them; bilinguals are born translators; switching between languages is a sign of laziness in bilinguals; all bilinguals are also bicultural; bilinguals have double or split personalities; bilingualism will delay language acquisition in children and have negative effects on their development; if you want your child to grow up bilingual, use the one person–one language approach; children being raised bilingual will always mix their languages; and so on.

My first aim in this book is to present the various facets of being bilingual as simply and as clearly as possible and, while doing so, to demystify who bilinguals are. (….) My second aim—as important as the first—is to offer bilinguals a book about who they are, written by someone who is himself bilingual and who has been through the highs and lows of living with several languages and cultures.

I want this book to be optimistic but also realistic. Bilingualism is not the burden or the problem it has been made out to be by some, but neither is it the complete bliss that others would have us believe. Bilingualism is quite simply a fact of life for millions and millions of people, with its ups and downs, its good times and its bad times, its moments of joy (there are many) and its moments of frustration (there are some). As a bilingual and bicultural person myself, I will try to describe people who, like me, know and use several languages and interact with different cultures; I will try do so in as clear and informative a way as possible.

Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from BILINGUAL: LIFE AND REALITY by François Grosjean, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  All rights reserved.

François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). Visit his website at: www.francoisgrosjean.ch and his Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual, at: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew October 25, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Why wasn’t he focused on multilinguals instead of bilinguals? It makes no sense. Why focus specifically on people who speak precisely two languages to the exclusion of those who speak 3 or more? That’s very odd.



2 Oliver October 31, 2010 at 12:44 am

On page 4 of the book, the author Prof. Grosjean specifically mentions why he prefers to use the term “bilingual” instead of “multilingual”. I quote him:

“I have often been asked why I don’t use the word ‘multilingual.’ Two reasons com to mind. The first is that some people are ‘only’ bilingual (they know and use two languages) and it seems odd to use the term ‘multilingual’ when describing them. The second is that the word ‘multilingual’ is used less than ‘bilingual’ in reference to individuals. There is a long tradition in the field of extending the notion of bilingualism to those who use two or more languages on a regular basis.”

Greetings, Oliver.


3 Keunho November 25, 2015 at 6:04 pm

My LO has been going to a parent-attended procohsel 2 hours,twice a week since 8 months old. They do Hawaiian songs and instructions as well as English in circle time. But that’s it. Both DH and I are experts in Spanish101 and know some phrases in key languages. I think it might be confusing if we are not fluent, at least until she gets older. We are not planning on sending her to language school but I have this great Chinese curriculum on DVD for kids, produced by our local cable channel. Maybe when she hits elementary school, I’ll show it to her. What I learned in my college linguistics course is that language learning is much easier if you expose them before 10.


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