Extracts from Bilingual: Life and Reality – Chapter 16

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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 16 of Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean
Linguistics aspects of childhood bilingualism

Bilingual children often show signs of dominance in a language. In children acquiring two languages simultaneously it is mainly due to the amount of exposure they get in each language.

The main effect of dominance—which can change, sometimes quite quickly—is that the stronger language develops to a greater extent than the weaker one (more sounds are isolated, more words are acquired, more grammatical rules are inferred) and it has a tendency to influence the weaker language

Language dominance in children acquiring two languages successively is even more pervasive than in their younger counterparts who are raised with two languages from the start, since at first they only have one language and it is constantly present when they are acquiring and speaking the second language

Language mixing is widely viewed as a consequence of bilingualism in children. The problem is that it is unclear what is meant by “mixing. (…) Bilingual children may be dominant in one language (whether they are simultaneous or successive bilinguals), and that language has a tendency to “impose itself” on the weaker language. (…) Even though children quickly learn about language mode and become adept at language choice and code-switching, there may be a short period of adjustment when these mechanisms are not yet under control. Slippage can take place at this point, and hence the mixing. (…) More generally, when children grow up in families where everyday communication is bilingual speech with a lot of base-language changes and code switching, it is no surprise that the young children speak in a similar fashion.

One aspect of bilingual children that simply amazes people, even researchers like me, is their ability to interpret quite early on. (..) We all realize that children do not have the same interpretation capacities as adults, nor the necessary vocabulary in both languages, but nevertheless their natural ability in this domain never ceases to impress us.

Finally, language play is something that one overlooks when talking about bilingual children and their languages. Just like monolingual children who play with language (making words rhyme, inventing new words, and so on), bilingual children play with their two (or more) languages.

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.

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