Extracts from Bilingual: Life and Reality – Chapter 18

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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 18 of Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean
Effects of bilingualism on children

Many have heard the following myth: Bilingualism has negative effects on the development of children. From where we stand today, it is clear that there is no basis for this myth—not even with bilingual children who have language disorders.

At present, the findings are not as black and white as earlier research—either totally positive or totally negative—seemed to show, and the differences between bilinguals and monolinguals, when any are found, are often specific to a particular task and sometimes rather subtle.

Bialystok has shown repeatedly that bilingualism enhances problem solving where solutions depend heavily on control of attention (…) Bilingual children are more advanced than monolingual children in developing inhibitory control.

As concerns metalinguistic abilities, which deal with our capacity to analyze different aspects of language and, if needed, to talk about these properties, Bialystok differentiates between two processes: the analysis of representational structures and the control of selective attention. She finds differences between monolinguals and bilinguals for the latter, selective attention (…), but not for the former.

Some linguistic tests, notably vocabulary tests, have also been used in studies comparing bilingual and monolingual children (…) bilinguals do less well on this task than monolinguals. This is because the vocabulary they have in each language is often smaller than that of comparable monolinguals. Of course when bilingual children are evaluated in terms of both their languages, then the situation improves greatly, but if one looks at just one language at a time, there is frequently a difference.

This is not surprising, however, as bilingual children are starting to be affected by the complementarity principle which states that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people, because different aspects of their life often require different languages. Unfortunately, vocabulary tests do not take this principle into account and hence test results penalize bilingual children. Nevertheless, (…) in other language tasks, especially those involving memory, there are no differences between monolinguals and bilinguals.

As concerns language disorders, bilingual children with disorders are not more numerous than monolingual children, and their difficulties are often the same as the latter.

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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