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.
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.
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.
Bilinguals do not have to meet such high standards in the United States, a country where bilingualism is very diverse, pairing English with Native American languages, older colonial languages, recent immigration languages, and so on. It has been estimated that more than 50 million inhabitants in the US live with two or more languages in their everyday lives.
In this blog I will evoke the many fascinating aspects that characterize bilinguals, both adults and children.
Reference: Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/blog_en.html
François Grosjean's website: www.francoisgrosjean.ch