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Dormant Bilinguals and President Obama

The vagaries of life may lead to dormant bilingualism.

Post written by François Grosjean.

I have often been asked the following question: If bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives, what do you call people who now live their lives with just one language, even though they know several other languages and used them before? My reply is that they are dormant bilinguals.

It is not rare for bilinguals to go from being active, regular bilinguals, interacting with the world around them using their different languages, to being single language users. This can happen at any time and is usually due to a major life change such as immigration, the loss of a close family member, a separation, a change of jobs, or simply growing up and leaving one's language community. If this situation extends over time, then the language no longer being used on a regular basis will start to be forgotten. (I cover language forgetting here).

President Barack Obama is a fine example of a dormant bilingual. He spent four years in Indonesia between the ages of six and ten. He attended local schools and spoke Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) quite fluently. He stopped using it with others though when he moved to Hawaii with the exception of his half sister and when on trips back to Indonesia.

This said, he can still hold a general conversation in Indonesian and it was interesting to hear him say a few words in his other language when he addressed students at the University of Indonesia on November 10 of this year. (His speech).

Each time he switched over to Indonesian - "Selamat pagi" (Good morning), "Pulang kampung nih" (Back to/in my hometown) and so on - his audience applauded loudly. He also made them laugh mimicking the calls of street vendors. He finished with a much longer sentence in Indonesian, clearly showing that he retained a lot of the language.

Even though one may feel shy speaking a language one no longer uses (this is my case when I say a few words in Italian), it can be a real pleasure to realize that people understand you nevertheless. Clearly President Obama was relishing such moments when he switched over to Indonesian. And when he stated, "Indonesia bagian dari didi saya" (Indonesia is part of me), he was clearly touched as was his audience.

By living those four years in a country, "made up of thousands of islands, and hundreds of languages, and people from scores of regions and ethnic groups", as he states in his speech, President Obama experienced bi- and multilingualism first hand. This was reinforced later by his years in Hawaii with its two state languages (English and Hawaiian) and its many other languages.

It is no surprise therefore that President Obama defends bilingualism. When he was a candidate, in the summer of 2008, he stated at a rally, "You should be thinking about .... how can your child become bilingual. We should have every child speaking more than one language".

When uttering those words, he may have been thinking of himself when he was a bilingual child in Indonesia. He shared some of those happy memories with his audience during his November 10 speech, "I learned to love Indonesia while flying kites and running along the paddy fields and catching dragonflies.....I remember the people, the old men and women who welcomed us with smiles; the children who made a foreign child feel like a neighbor and a friend; and the teachers who helped me learn about this country."

Note: President Obama's speech in Indonesia can be found on the American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank site:

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area:

François Grosjean's website:

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