Life as a Bilingual

The reality of living with two (or more) languages

Born To Be Bilingual

A letter to my newborn grandchild

My dearest little one,

One day you may read this letter written a few days after your birth. Your parents, your extended family, as well as many friends, have been celebrating your arrival among us. We have been marveling at how beautiful and how delicate you are, and we have wondered at your every move, awake or asleep.

Whilst I was admiring you during my last visit, I could not help but think that your life will be surrounded by languages and cultures. Since your mother speaks primarily two rhythmically different languages, you came to the world already attuned to those languages. And in your first year, you will start acquiring those two languages simultaneously. Your father, and his family, will speak one language to you, and your mother, and her family, the other. Being bilingual and bicultural will be a normal part of your life.

You will reach the main milestones of language acquisition–babbling, first words, first phrases–at a  rate similar to that of monolingual children. Some sounds or sound groups that are easier to produce will appear sooner than those that are more difficult, some words will have their meaning overextended, and simpler grammatical constructions will be used before more complex ones. The main difference, of course, will be that you will be doing all of this in two languages–just like millions of other bilingual children–and not just one.

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Of course, if one language receives more input that the other in your first years, it may become your dominant language–sounds will be isolated more quickly, more words will be acquired, and more grammatical rules will be inferred. And your dominant language may well influence your other language. But this can be corrected quickly if you change environment and your weaker language starts being used more often. It may even take over as your dominant language if the change lasts long enough.

Very quickly you will know which language to use with whom and for what. At first, you will create a strong bond between a person and his or her language. You will address that person in the appropriate language and you may be at a loss–to the point of being upset–when the wrong language is used by your interlocutor. You may even offer to interpret for that person in order to maintain the person-language bond.

You will also intermingle your languages at times as a communicative strategy or to fill a linguistic need. In the latter case, you may suddenly find yourself having to say something in a language that you do not normally use for that particular domain, object or situation. But very quickly you will learn that with people who only know one of your languages, you have to speak just their language.

As the years go by, you will sometimes play with your languages. You will violate the person-language bond and will jokingly speak to someone in the wrong language. Or you may mix your languages on purpose to raise some eyebrows. A bit later, you will translate idiomatic expressions literally into the other language and produce them with a straight face. You may even imitate family members who speak one of your languages with an accent when you could say the same utterance without one.

Since your parents and grandparents have roots in different cultures, you will be introduced to them and will become bicultural. You will learn to adapt to each culture as you navigate between them and you will combine and blend aspects of these cultures. Hopefully, each of your cultures will accept you as a bicultural person and will not force you to choose one over the other. As you grow up, you will be a bridge between the cultures you belong to and you will sometimes act as an intermediary between the two.

There may be times when you are frustrated because of your bilingualism or biculturalism. Someone may make a remark about your way of saying or doing something, or may not know how to situate you. You may also struggle with a written language that you do not (yet) master well. But your parents and your extended family will be there to ease you through the difficulty and make things better.

Be proud of your linguistic and cultural roots and enjoy going back and forth between your languages and cultures. I will personally marvel at how you do so, and will help you, as best I can, to meet the challenges that you will sometimes have to face.

Welcome, my dearest little one ...... may you have a wonderful life!

 

Reference

Grosjean, François. Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

 

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area.

 François Grosjean's website.

 

François Grosjean, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland and the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, among other books.

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