What Bilingualism Is NOT

by expert · 27 comments

By Professor François Grosjean

I have had the chance to live and work for extended periods of time in at least three countries, the United States, Switzerland and France, and as a researcher on bilingualism, it has allowed me to learn a lot about my topic of interest. I have found that people in these countries share many misconceptions about bilingualism and bilinguals but that they also have very country-specific attitudes towards them.

Among shared misunderstandings, one is that bilingualism is a rare phenomenon. In fact, it has been estimated that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual, that is uses two or more languages in everyday life. Bilingualism is found in all parts of the world, at all levels of society, in all age groups. Another common misconception is that bilinguals have equal knowledge of their languages. In fact, bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them and many are dominant in one of them.

There are also the myths that real bilinguals do not have an accent in their different languages and that they are excellent all-around translators. This is far from being true. Having an accent or not does not make one more or less bilingual, and bilinguals often have difficulties translating specialized language.

Then there is the misconception that all bilinguals are bicultural (they are not) and that they have double personalities (as a bilingual myself, and with a sigh of relief, I can tell you that this is not the case).

As concerns children, many worries and misconceptions are also widespread. The first is that bilingualism will delay language acquisition in young children. This was a popular myth in the first part of the last century, but there is no research evidence to that effect. Their rate of language acquisition is the same as that of their monolingual counterparts.

There is also the fear that children raised bilingual will always mix their languages. In fact, they adapt to the situation they are in. When they interact in monolingual situations (e.g. with Grandma who doesn’t speak their other language), they will respond monolingually; if they are with other bilinguals, then they may well code-switch. Finally, there is the worry that bilingualism will affect negatively the cognitive development of bilingual children. Recent research appears to show the contrary; bilingual children do better than monolingual children in certain cognitive tasks.

Aside from these common misunderstandings, certain attitudes are specific to countries and areas of the world. In Europe, for example, bilingualism is seen favorably but people have very high standards for who should be considered bilingual. The latter should have perfect knowledge of their languages, have no accent in them, and even, in some countries, have grown up with their two (or more) languages. At that rate, very few people consider themselves bilingual even though, in Switzerland for example, the majority of the inhabitants know and use two or more languages in their everyday life.

How about the United States? Einar Haugen, a pioneer of bilingualism studies, has stated that the US has probably been the home of more bilingual speakers than any other country in the world. Bilingualism here is very diverse, pairing English with Native American languages, older colonial languages, recent immigration languages, and so on.

This said, it is not very extensive at any one time. Currently, only 17% of the population is bilingual as compared to much higher percentages in many other countries of the world. This is not due to the fact that new immigrants are not learning English. The reason, rather, is that bilingualism is basically short-lived and transitional in this country. For generations and generations of Americans, bilingualism has covered a brief period, spanning one or two generations, between monolingualism in a minority language and monolingualism in English.

The tolerance that America has generally shown towards minority languages over the centuries has favored the linguistic integration of its speakers. As sociologist Nathan Glazer writes, the language of minorities “shriveled in the air of freedom while they had apparently flourished under adversity in Europe”.

When presidential candidate Barak Obama stated that children should speak more than one language, he was probably referring to the paradox one finds in this country: on the one hand, the world’s languages brought to the United States are not maintained, and they wither away, and on the other hand only a few of them are taught in schools, to too few students, and for too short a time. A national resource – the country’s knowledge of the languages of the world – is being put aside and is not being maintained.

It is important to stop equating bilingualism with not knowing English and being un-American. Bilingualism means knowing and using at least two or more languages, one of which is English in the United States. Bilingualism allows you to communicate with different people and hence to discover different cultures, thereby giving you a different perspective on the world. It increases your job opportunities and it is an asset in trade and commerce. It also allows you to be an intermediary between people who do not share the same languages.

Bilingualism is a personal enrichment and a passport to other cultures. At the very least, and to return to Barak Obama’s comment, it certainly allows you to say more than “merci beaucoup” when interacting with someone of another language. One never regrets knowing several languages but one can certainly regret not knowing enough.

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.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew March 3, 2011 at 8:45 am

I agree that we in the U.S. need to do a much better job emphasizing language-learning in our schools, but frankly the problem is much larger than that: our entire educational system (below the university level) is really in trouble and has been declining for quite some time, and I’m not really sure that it can be fixed any time soon.

I have to say that I disagree with the Swiss concerning who is and isn’t bilingual, granted it’s a word whose definition is very subjective, but I think they’re being a bit silly in their requirements. If someone can hold a conversation with a native speaker, at a normal conversational rate of speed, about normal everyday subjects, then I’d consider them bilingual. What would they say to describe someone who speaks multiple languages but who doesn’t fit their “bilingual” criteria of having no accent or having grown up with the language?



2 Sarah February 2, 2015 at 12:14 am

Hi Andrew,

I do not know anything about the educational system in the U.S. but referring to your question how we in Europe call someone who can hold a fluent conversation in another language than his or her own, I think we don’t name these people at all because it is not very special. The EU is diverse but in most countries you expect everyone, at least people who reached university level in their education to be able to hold a normal conversation in English. What is special here (at least in my country Germany) is multilingualism, let’s say being fluent more than 3 languages or “true” bilingualism and I think this is why we call only those who grew up with the language bilingual because if we did use your criteria almost everyone would be. Of course I expect the UK to be different 😉



3 Rachel February 2, 2015 at 3:24 pm

I agree with Sarah. As a pupil of a German-language school for about four years, my German is at the level that you (Andrew) would probably consider “bilingual” – yet neither I nor any of my classmates would consider me “bilingual”, because I didn’t have a word of German before I was 12. Although everything we did at school was in German and I’m perfectly capable of doing schoolwork and having a conversation (and graduated last year), I’m all too aware of the vast gulf of ability between myself and my bilingual both-languages-since-babyhood classmates.

Of course, by the time we graduated, all of us were capable of speaking French at about B1 level, too, but not one of us would claim to be bilingual in French!

I can have a conversation in languages (English, German, French, Gaelic, Spanish), but I’m not bilingual by my standards or Europe’s.


4 EB March 3, 2011 at 11:19 am

Thanks for your post!
I like your point on “It is important to stop equating bilingualism with not knowing English and being un-American. (…) Bilingualism allows you to communicate with different people and hence to discover different cultures, thereby giving you a different perspective on the world. It increases your job opportunities and it is an asset in trade and commerce. It also allows you to be an intermediary between people who do not share the same languages.”

However, and maybe this is because I grew up in Europe (coincidentally in France and Switzerland too) and have lived in the US, I make a huge distinction between fluency and bilingualism. For me, it’s even more than the ability to switch back and forth between two languages comfortably. It’s also the ability to contextualize mannerisms, idioms, analogies to each audience. It’s also cultural understanding and the knowledge of current affairs. So, being bi-cultural is a huge part of that. Of course, as you said and depending on the topic, one language might be stronger than the other, but still the ambidextrous nature of bilingualism is pretty key, otherwise there is little distinction between knowing another language and bilingualism.

PS: Bilingualism is the knowledge of 2 languages. Multilingualism the knowledge of more than 2. 🙂


5 Amy March 3, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Thank you for sharing this! I live in the only official francophone province in Canada, and it is interesting to read this article in light of the ongoing identity crisis of the Quebec people and their concerns over protecting their language in a sea of English.


6 Rebecca March 4, 2011 at 12:25 am

I really appreciate this article. I was lucky enough to be part of an experimental program in my American grammar school (way back in the 80’s) and was exposed to French in my public school from the age of 5. Language programs for young children seem to be on the up in France while funding for education seems to be going down in the US…Bilingualism is one of the great gifts you can give to a child.


7 Marita March 4, 2011 at 8:27 am

Yes, bilingualism means something different in Europe than in the US, especially if you’re applying for a job. You’re expected to be fluent in written and spoken word and you’re expected to have little or no accent. The US has much lower standards in many ways. Each business or person has their own expectations when talking about bilingualism.


8 Miranda March 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Multilinguilism in other parts of the world is astonishing to me. I am awestruck at my South African husband and his family and the variety of languages they use and understand on a daily basis in SA, though many would say they aren’t fluent or bilingual because their use is limited to the job or individual they are speaking to. He was a Xhosa raised in Zululand that attended English schools and was required to learn Afrikaans. I’ve heard him speak Sotho, Tswana, and other African languages with fair fluency when necessary and am always amazed at the abilities of so many in that country to easily communicate in a variety of languages, though English education definately means that specialized speak is done mostly in English. The only complaint I have is that these languages are not commonly spoken outside of SA and thus it is so difficult to help our children learn isiXhosa in the US.


9 Diane H. March 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Very interesting post. Thank you!

So this is a very broad generalization, but I find Americans will say “I speak French, I took one year of French in college” whereas in Europe people who I think of as very bilingual will say they can’t speak English because they “only studied it for 12 years in school, and never spent a year in England”. The standards are definitely different.

In the defense of the Americans though, it’s easy to live your entire life and never meet anyone who doesn’t speak English. So you never practically experience exactly how unable to communicate you are in your second language.


10 Kaley [Y Mucho Más] May 10, 2013 at 3:11 am

Hahah, come to Spain, they all “speak English.” But then they don’t.


11 Margaret Nahmias May 3, 2011 at 5:18 pm

The U.S. isn”t the only country that lagging behind in language learning I was reading article that only 11% of Chilean student know basic English after taking English classes . And I was reading it.in Spanish!!!


12 Bill Frampton September 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm

That figure is no surprise at all considering how hard English is to learn for people with another native language.


13 Adolph Caso May 4, 2011 at 4:25 am

I have published an essay entitled, Bilingualism–What It Purports to Do. If you wish to read it an for publication, I would be happy to send it.

Adolph Caso
Northeastern U., Harvard U.


14 Susanne May 11, 2011 at 6:17 am

I agree with EB that there is a vast gulf between being able to hold a conversation in another language and being bilingual! An understanding of the different cultures underpins bilingualism in my opinion, accent is far less important.

I grew up in Luxemburg where people are comfortable switching between French (needed to fill in forms!), German and the indigenous Germanic dialect Luxembourgish. As a very small country stuck between much larger neighbours, the cultures from both language communities appear in papers (incidentally written in all three languages) and make the tv news, so the population has a very good understanding of intertextual references.

Therefore I would certainly consider them to be trilingual, although some undoubtably favour some languages over others. They can function in all three though. Accentless they are most definitely not, in fact most transport the typical Luxembourgish vowel sounds into both their French and their German and are instantly recognisable by them.

Nevertheless, as they “get” jokes in all three languages, their linguistic skills include puns and wordplay, and these are definitely lifting their language level beyond the utilitarian! Jokes are notorious for being almost impossible to translate to speakers of the other languages, however competent, if they do not also have a good grasp of the culture which underpin the language.

I am one of those people Diane mentions as “having done 7 years of English at school” (I actually did 12 of French) but not considering myself bilingual because when I first moved to England I couldn’t follow the newsprogrammes without giving them 100% concentration (something which as a native speaker you can do with one ear while the other listens out for the school bus to arrive and you sort out shoes, hats and gloves…)

It takes a considerable time of immersion in the community as their language skills are based on TV programmes they watched as children, comics and books they read etc, events they witnessed while they were growing up which you have to assimilate in order to be bilingual.
If you come from a bilingual home chances are that both parents pass some of this on to you while you are growing up and this gives you a definite head-start, which is why many who have learned a language in adulthood stop at a certain level and never become truly bilingual. But it is not impossible, it just takes a lot of time and effort.
I would now call myself bilingual because I pass my self-imposed test: I can answer the Literature and Culture questions in the English Trivial Pursuits 🙂


15 shana August 11, 2012 at 5:38 am

By your definition, I’m not even monolingual.


16 Language job board November 15, 2011 at 12:10 am

Nice and help full sharing, I really like it and I find it very help full, hope that you will keep it up…


17 Bill Frampton September 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm

The advantages of knowing more than one language are clear to many, but are usually either unkown or ignored in the Anglosphere. Most native English-speakers — especially in North America — believe the myth that English is (or is becoming) the world language, so they think it’s the only language they need. One result of this belief is that the vast majority reach adulthood without knowing any language but English and by then in most cases the effort of learning most second languages is too great so they cling to the myth about English even in the face of facts that show that’s not the case. To change this, is a language that’s easy to learn is needed, one that won’t take too much effort to be worth learning.

Fortunately such a language exists and can be learned in only a fraction of the time it would take to learn French, Spanish or German let alone Russian, Mandarin or Arabic. That language is Esperanto, the ideal second language for everyone on the planet, that’s uniquely logical, clear, precise, regular, consistent, international, expressive and easy to learn — so much so that without any major push behind it, it’s spread to the point that there are now Esperanto-speakers in at least 120 countries. Esperanto estas lingvo por la tuta mondo!


18 Nicki Berry December 18, 2012 at 2:33 am

I can say with some certainty that Esperanto is not the ideal second language for everyone on the planet. As an English person living in Finland, Finnish is definitely the ideal second language for me. Swedish would be a close third.


19 Bill Frampton December 18, 2012 at 9:45 am

You missed my point altogether Nicki. Obviously a local language is useful where one lives, so Finnish is useful to you in Finland and French is useful to me in Canada. Finnish won’t help you very much in Sweden or Norway though, and French would be pretty useless to me in Mexico or Brazil.

My point was that Esperanto can be a common second language for ALL of us: Canadians, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and everyone else and enable everyone in the world to communicate intelligibly with anyone else in the world. Neither English, French, Finnish or any other ethnic language can ever be that.


20 Adolph Caso May 10, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Issues in Bilingual and Modern Language Education, by Adolph Caso, Kindle edition only, ISBN 9780828324052
In these various essays, written over a period of twenty years while serving as a foreign language teacher and Director of a K-12 Bilingual Department, Adolph (Adolfo) Caso re-acted to various educational situations while championing the need for limited or non Eng-lish-speaking foreign students to maintain fluency in their native languages.
Adolfo came to America when eleven years old, knowing his native dialect (classifiable, therefore, as semi-lingual). He completed only the first grade in his native country; then, after entering the American School System as a sixth grader, he successfully completed all of the public school graduation requirements without any native language assistance. Hav-ing been placed in another foreign language, before long, he was more fluent in that lan-guage rather than his own. Nevertheless, he finished his bachelor degree from Northeast-ern University and his Arts Master degree from Harvard.


21 Adolph Caso May 10, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Kaso Verb Conjugation System—English, Spanish and Italian. Adolph Caso. ISBN 9780828321204 (Open Source—free)
This unique Verb Conjugation System allows complete split-second conjugation of verbs in English, Spanish, and Italian–in any order. Twenty two columns of verb-related informa-tion allow tense-related comparisons in any or all three languages—instantly! What is the Present progressive of to go? Type or choose it from the list, click on that tense, and it quickly appears on the screen.
Click the Spanish Progresivo presente and it quickly appears next to its English counter-part. Click on Italian, and you have all three. Reverse the order and you will feel the power behind this awesome System.
If verb phrases or infinitives are not in the data base, or exist in one language and not the other, you are immediately notified.


22 Adolph Caso May 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Bilingual Two Language Assessment Battery of Tests (English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian), Adolph Caso, ISBN 9780828320948
To be administered to students or adults having any second grade or higher level lan-guage proficiency either in his/her Native Language or in English, including ESL (English as a Second Language) students.
This Battery of Tests can be administered to public and private school Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, or any adult or potential employee. It is also suited for students in modern language classes to determine rate of language acquisition, any individual having two proficiencies in his/her Native Language and English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Russian, or any individual having proficiency in three or more languages.


23 Rachel November 2, 2013 at 3:37 am

It’s funny, I don’t consider myself anywhere near bilingual, even though my German (and possibly my Spanish and maybe my French) are good enough to be considered such by most of the definitions here… Really, the only language in which I am 100% comfortable in all situations is English. But my German is good for almost every situation, and I can certainly function through Spanish and French.

It’s probably because most of my real-life multilingual experience happens at the local German Saturday school, where most of my classmates can be considered a “native speaker” of both languages, of equal (very high) level in both. (Not to mention they all study yet another language or three at high school… very unusual for Australia!).

Speaking of which, I was going to say that we do have the same problem here in Australia as in the US – bilingualism, where it happens, is fleeting, lasting only a generation, perhaps two or even three at the very most, before it fades out completely in favour of monolingual English. In Australia, we’re so far from anywhere else (except possibly New Zealand… which is still 5 hours on an aeroplane) that no-one really sees any benefit in speaking another language. I don’t suppose I need to convince anyone here of how important speaking more than one language is!

I do find it interesting how you mentioned in the article that one’s level in various languages is very much dependant on what level it needs to be, and for what situations – this is certainly true for my German. I can comfortably discuss some rather odd, varied, and in-depth topics, but there are other things that completely elude me. Usually the everyday-type stuff that most of the kids in my class learn at home!


24 SY April 6, 2015 at 12:00 am

I found this writing, searching criteria of justice bilingualism. Because there is an qualification which acquire fluent in written and speaking in English. (must bilingual).
So I felt that is quite vague standards.
I can understand English with my friend. But I am not grown to be bilingual.
I agree what writer said “It is important to stop equating bilingualism with not knowing English and being un-American.”
However it is quite unpalatable that I am thinking it is a huge benefit who grown up as bilingual(means they using English and their mother tongue)


Leave a Comment

{ 3 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: