Extracts from Bilingual: Life and Reality – Chapter 15

by Corey · 2 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.

You may want to start with the first posts in this series:

Chapter 15 of Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean
– Acquiring two languages –

Simultaneous bilinguals are far less numerous than children who acquire their two languages successively (certainly less than 20 percent of bilingual children). Although there is some variability in the rate of language acquisition among bilingual children, as there is among monolingual children, the main milestones are reached within the same age spans in the two groups. (…) As concerns the first word spoken, we’ve known for quite some time that monolingual and bilingual children do not differ; this takes place at around eleven months, on average.

Other reported similarities between monolingual and bilingual children are: sounds or sound groups that are easier to produce appear sooner than those that are more difficult, some words are overextended, utterances slowly increase in length, simpler grammatical constructions are used before more complex ones, and so on.

Most children become bilingual in a successive manner. That is, they learn one language in the home and then a second language at school or in the outside community. They therefore already have a language when they start acquiring the second one, and they can use their first language, to some extent at least (researchers diverge on the extent), in acquiring the new language.

There is a myth that the earlier a language is acquired, the more fluent a child will be in it. The reality is slightly different and this needs to be underscored. The crucial factors for becoming bilingual as a child (as stated earlier), 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 school, and the prevailing attitudes toward the language and the culture and toward bilingualism as such

Learners can be very different from one another. They may come from different cultural, linguistic, and social groups; they may be of different ages; they may have different cognitive abilities (for example, perceptual skills, pattern recognition skills), as well as different attitudes toward trying new things and taking risks. Some will indeed actively venture forth, even if they make mistakes, while others will be more reserved, and sometimes the outcome of the latter approach may be more successful.

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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Marjan November 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm

This article really nails it all. Although my kids are raised trilingual since birth. They definately have pronounciation problems in their minority languages. We do have to pay special attention to this.

And the risk taking is so clearly seen in my two kids. The eldest would not take any risk and chooses not to say something she is not sure about, where the youngest just has a go and shrugs his shoulders or has a big laugh when it is wrong.


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