I am honored to have had the opportunity to interview world-renowned scholar and expert on bilingualism, François Grosjean, for “Language Matters.”
Interview with François Grosjean
Questions asked by Professor Kathleen Stein-Smith
April 13, 2020
In discussing the role of each language in the life of the bilingual person, you have discussed the “Complementarity Principle.” Please explain the dynamic of context and proficiency, and of acquisition and use.
The Complementarity Principle, which I first proposed back in 1985, states that bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life often require different languages.
The principle accounts for many interesting bilingual phenomena. The first is language fluency. If a language is spoken in a reduced number of domains and with a limited number of people, then it will not be developed as much as a language used in more domains and with more people. This is also true of certain language skills such as reading and writing as well as stylistic levels.
Well-learned behaviors are special cases of the principle – counting, doing arithmetic, praying, etc. – since one language usually has exclusive control of that behavior.
Translation is another skill affected by the principle. Unless bilinguals have domains covered by two languages (as do professional translators), or have acquired their other languages via translation equivalents, they may not have the resources to produce an adequate translation.
Children are also influenced by the principle. It explains, in part, why a language is more developed than another, and why children may switch over to the other language during a conversation.
Basically, the complementarity principle is one of the most pervasive aspects of individual bilingualism. It is discussed further in a blog post of mine.
In your description of your school years in the UK, you describe your partial loss of French, your first language, later regained when you moved to Paris for your university studies. What advice would you have for heritage speakers, their parents and communities, and for educators and advocates who would like to strengthen proficiency and use of heritage languages?
The very first thing I would propose is that parents, caretakers and educators learn about heritage speakers: they have been exposed to their heritage language at home mainly, and it is often their first language; they have little or no accent in that language; they change language dominance when they start going to school, and with time many will use their home language less and less; their domains of use of their first language may be limited (see the Complimentarity Principle); they become literate in their school language but less often in their first language; many find translating difficult when more specialized language in involved; and many may not be fully bicultural.
I would also propose that language heritage children and adolescents be given heritage language assessments regularly so as to allow caretakers and educators to plan their language curriculum. This will allow them to take advantage of what they already know, what needs to be reinforced, and what needs to be taught.
Lastly, as a heritage language speaker in my youth, I would encourage adults to be extremely supportive of these children. They need to tell them that they understand what they are going through, and that is is just fine to be bilingual the way they are. Their knowledge of their heritage language, often a minority language, is a real asset that they can turn into a lifelong advantage if they work on it in the ways that are proposed to them.
In your book, you described your own path to bilingualism and mentioned some of the strategies you and your wife employed in raising your 2 bilingual and bicultural sons. What advice would you have for parents who would like to raise bilingual and bicultural children, and for communities and advocacy groups that would like to effectively support bilingualism?
When I am asked this question, I usually suggest that parents and other caretakers read a blog post I wrote a few years ago entitled, “Planned bilingualism: Five questions to consider”. In it I discuss when to start a second language (it doesn’t have to be at birth or even in very early childhood), what parental strategy should be used (many are available, with their advantages and disadvantages), whether the child has a real need for the other language (this is probably the most crucial aspect of becoming and staying bilingual), the type and amount of input from each language that is available (without a lot of diversified input, a language will not bloom as easily), and finally, what kind of support parents or caretakers will be able to count on (outside support is crucial).
As for communities and advocacy groups outside the family, I have been impressed lately by dual-language educational movements in the United States spearheaded by parents and educators. The way they are persuading public schools to be involved, thereby ensuring bilingual education free of charge, is a remarkable step forward which I applaud. I interviewed Dr. Fabrice Jaumont about it on my blog.
In addition to your scholarly and academic research in linguistics, you have also written books, articles, and your blog, “Life as a Bilingual,” that are largely accessible to the non-specialist. Please describe your view of the role of the scholar as advocate and change agent.
I strongly believe that as active researchers we should inform the general public of our research. For too long this has been left to others who simply may not understand the field they are reporting on as well as those involved in it directly.
For example, there are numerous blogs on bilingualism, many of them written by parents of bilingual children, and they are important for families who wish to follow in their footsteps and who are looking for support. But often parents are not themselves researchers in the field of bilingualism and do not always fully understand scientific papers.
Those involved directly in that scholarly work can therefore play a crucial role in getting that knowledge out and explaining their own studies, and those of their colleagues. But in turn, the people who write about such findings must be able to replace them in their context. They must describe them clearly, without too much jargon, and show the impact they have on our everyday life. It is no simple task but if these researchers are also good teachers, and enjoy explaining things to students, then there is a good chance that they will be able to write clear and informative posts.
I have tried to do this in my blog which is now ten years old and has had more than two million visitors. There are some 150 posts that readers can choose from (see here for an index by content).
As you know, in the US, there are between 10M and 20M with French ancestry, of whom 3M speak French in the home. What advice would you offer to those communities and other French-language stakeholders working to strengthen knowledge and use of French in the US.
When I was preparing my first book on bilingualism, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism, I wrote a 70 page chapter on bilingualism in the United States. One of the language groups I concentrated on was Franco-Americans. I realized very quickly that it is in fact a very diverse group made up of subgroups: those in Louisiana (original French settlers, the Creoles, the Cajuns, etc.), those in New England (descendants of French Canadians), as well as more recent speakers of French who have emigrated from European countries but also other parts of the world (the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, etc.).
This very rich diversity, both linguistic and cultural, requires different pedagogical approaches as well as varied support groups. One will simply not teach French in the same way to students who have French as a heritage language, a second or third family language, or no French at all, not to mention all the cultures they originally come from. I do realize that this makes the life of educators and administrators more difficult, but adapting pedagogy to students’ existing knowledge of French, and to where they come from in “la Francophonie”, if at all possible, will be very rewarding in the end.
Do you have any final words for our readers?
Allow me to take them from the Conclusion of my book, Bilingual: Life and Reality.
Despite all the myths that still surround bilingualism – bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages, bilingualism delays language acquisition in children, real bilinguals have no accent in their different languages, mixing languages is a sign of laziness, etc. – I remain optimistic that things will change.
An increasing number of children and adolescents in the process of becoming bilingual, bicultural, and, for some, biliterate, are now receiving the attention they require.
There are bound to be times when the going will be difficult and frustration will occur, and so it is crucial that children and their parents receive encouragement and assistance.
As bilingual children and adolescents grow older, they must be allowed to talk about what it means to be bilingual and bicultural, and to express some of the difficulties they may be having. Caring and informed adults must accompany them – many already do – and ease their passage from one stage to the next.
I dream of the moment when these young people, who are in the process of becoming adults, will be proud of their languages and cultures, and will be accepted for who they are—bilingual and bicultural individuals, quite simply.
François Grosjean’s website: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch
And his blog: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/life-bilingual