What Is It Like to Be Bilingual?
Bilinguals talk about their bilingualism
Posted October 17, 2011
Post written by François Grosjean.
Practically everyone has an opinion about the advantages and inconveniences of being bilingual - educators, psychologists, linguists, sociologists - even if they are not bilingual themselves. With the aid of two short surveys, and many personal testimonies, I propose we let bilinguals tell us what it is like to be bilingual.
The dominant picture that emerges is that bilinguals are quite positive about their bilingualism. A first advantage they put forward concerns the ability they have to communicate with different people, of different cultures, in different countries. Linked to this is the fact that being bilingual allows you to read more (if you are literate in several languages naturally) and to sometimes express yourself with greater clarity and with a more diverse vocabulary (when all languages are taken into consideration, of course).
A second advantage put forward by bilinguals is the fact that knowing several languages seems to help you learn other languages. Not only might the new language be linked to one that you already know, hence facilitating its learning, but the more the mind learns about the workings of different aspects of language, the more it can help with a new language. A Marathi / Hindi / English trilingual verbalized this by stating that being bi- or multilingual helps understanding how a language has a different logic.
Bilinguals also stress the fact that bilingualism fosters open-mindedness, offers different perspectives on life, and reduces cultural ignorance. As a sign language / oral language bilingual wrote to me, "Bilingualism gives you a double perspective on the world".
Bilinguals are also very practical when they state that bilingualism gives you more job opportunities and greater social mobility. Other advantages they put forward are that bilingualism allows you to help others, create a bond with other bilinguals (even if they do not share all your languages), and understand what others do not.
The two surveys also enquired about the inconveniences of being bilingual. Surprisingly, a third of the respondents stated that there weren't any. Of the disadvantages that were listed, one was the fact that not knowing a language well makes communication - spoken or written - tiring and error prone. In fact, some bilinguals sometimes feel that they do not know either of their languages well (for an explanation, see here). There are also those who regret having an accent in one of their languages.
A few bilinguals state that when speaking monolingually, they struggle to keep out code-switches and borrowings (see here). Interferences can also appear (see here) and they increase in number when bilinguals get tired, angry, or nervous. Having to use the "wrong language", that is the language not usually used in a particular situation, can be also be difficult and frustrating.
Bilinguals note the inconvenience of being asked to translate and interpret from time to time. They may not be able to refuse and so they struggle through and find it quite stressful. One particularly vivid testimony is given by Paul Preston who interviewed English / American Sign Language hearing bilinguals. This particular person had to interpret at her father's funeral because there was no-one else who could do it: "I just kept sobbing and signing, all mixed up, all at the same time".
A final inconvenience that is mentioned is linked to biculturalism and reflects the fact that some bicultural bilinguals are still in the process of adjusting to their cultures and working out how they wish to identify themselves (see here).
Despite these disadvantages, it clearly emerges from the surveys that bilinguals are very positive about their knowledge and use of two or more languages. Had they been asked, they would probably have made their own this trilingual's testimony:
"I have achieved greater stature in my work environment; I have developed my lingual capacities; I have become more open-minded toward minorities and more aware of their linguistic problems; I have enjoyed various forms of literature and felt a certain amount of pride in being able to read in three different languages . . . Life never becomes boring, because there is more than just one language available."
Grosjean, F. Attitudes and feelings about bilingualism. Chapter 9 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Preston, P. (1995). Mother Father Deaf. Cambridge, MA: 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