The Man Behind the Book: François Grosjean, author of Bilingual: Life and Reality (Part One)

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Prof. François Grosjean in Corsica

Meeting François Grosjean, the author of
Bilingual: Life and Reality

The world over knows Prof. François Grosjean via his research and publications. As Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, and via numerous books and papers, he has greatly influenced our understanding of language on many levels. His holistic view of bilingualism has helped us embrace our languages for what they are: integral parts of our own unique humanness. With his most recent book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, Prof. François Grosjean has further helped us embrace our own multilingualism as the most natural thing in the world.

But what about the person behind this research and these books?

Multilingual Living is honored to have the opportunity to share the following interview with François Grosjean – man, father and husband. He shares with us his personal insights about what it means to be a multilingual as well as offering us a deeper view into who he is as a person. We feel greatly privileged to be able to get to know this wonderful man who has contributed so much to the field of multilingualism.

Without further ado, here is Part One of the interview: The Man Behind the Book: François Grosjean, author of Bilingual: Life and Reality. Stay tuned for Part Two which will appear on Multilingual Living next week.

Professor Grosjean, people know of your work and your defense of bi- / multilingualism, and yet we know very little about you. Thank you for accepting to tell us a bit about yourself.
François Grosjean:
It is my pleasure.

Here is a first question: People have problems situating you; are you French, English, Swiss?
FG: A bit of all those; you can add a bit American too as we lived in the United States for twelve years back in the 70s and 80s.

I was born in France to a French father and an English mother. Then at age eight I was put into an English boarding school in Switzerland before being sent to a school in England. I then did my college studies in France, and started working there before coming to the USA. Finally, in 1986, my family and I settled in Switzerland.

Does having so many roots worry you in any way?
FG: On the contrary, I am proud of being a mosaic of four cultures, and much of my writing has been influenced by who I am and where I have lived.

As you know, I am a strong proponent of telling people that we are X and Y and Z instead of saying that we are neither X nor Y nor Z. In today’s world, there are more and more people who have varied origins and who are proud of them.

This said, it took me some time to start thinking this way and that is why I defend the early positive nurturing of languages and cultures in children.

Your personal experience with bi- / multilingualism definitely comes through in your writing. Can you tell us about that?
FG: It is true that the way my life has evolved has allowed me to see the many facets of bilingualism. I became bilingual successively, that is I spoke French first and then acquired English at age eight. So I know what it feels like to start as a monolingual and then to become bilingual. I have also experienced changes in language dominance several times during my life and know what that means too.

In addition, I started acquiring another language as an adult (American Sign Language), although never very well, and hence I have lived through the first steps of late language learning.

Finally, I have lost a language, Italian, which I knew quite well when I was an adolescent. The only thing missing is early simultaneous bilingualism! All these aspects, as well as observing and helping my own children become bilingual, have helped me internalize first hand the many facets of bilingualism and biculturalism.

In your book you have a whole chapter on family strategies and support. It this because your own parents played a large role in how you became bilingual?
FG: I’m afraid that my parents separated when I was very young and so I spent my early years with a foster mother in a little village outside Paris. I was then put into a boarding school.

I only saw my parents, separately, during my vacations and I can’t recall that either of them helped me adapt to my new cultures (Swiss, English) or to my new language (English). I wish they had as sometimes I had real difficulties both linguistically and culturally.

Did you do things differently when you had your own family?
FG: Yes, with my wife, Lysiane, we had a totally different approach. When we arrived in Switzerland with our two sons for the first time and they started learning French (we had been an English-speaking family until then), we spent a lot of time with both boys helping them with their French and talking to them about the way people do things differently in Switzerland and in the USA, their first country.

We also developed various strategies to keep both their languages alive, and we helped them with their third language, German. It was a way of putting into practice the kind of support I had dreamed of having as a child and as a teenager.

And do you think you succeeded?
FG: Well, you’ll have to ask my sons really, but let me at least tell you that one is now an active trilingual in English, French and German and the other is quintilingual (the same three languages as well as Swiss German and Spanish).

To be continued…

Stay tuned for next week when we will present Part Two of The Man Behind the Book: François Grosjean, author of Bilingual: Life and Reality. You won’t want to miss the rest of is inspiring interview!


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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