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Child Development

What Do Bilinguals and Hurdlers Have in Common?

A holistic view of bilinguals

Post written by François Grosjean.

A monolingual (or fractional) view of bilingualism has been prevalent—and still is among some people—when we talk about those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives.

According to a strong version of this view, the bilingual has (or should have) two separate and isolable language competencies; these competencies are (or should be) similar to those of the two corresponding monolinguals; therefore, the bilingual is (or should be) two monolinguals in one person.

This monolingual view of bilingualism has had a number of consequences. One of them is that bilinguals have been described and evaluated in terms of the fluency and balance they have in their two languages. As I wrote in an earlier post, the “real” bilingual has long been seen as the one who is equally, and fully, fluent in two languages. He or she is the “ideal”, the “true”, the “balanced”, the “perfect” bilingual. All the others—in fact, the vast majority of bilinguals—are “not really” bilingual or are “special types” of bilinguals (see here).

Another consequence is that language skills in bilinguals have almost always been appraised in terms of monolingual norms. The evaluation tools used with bilinguals are often quite simply those employed with the monolinguals of the two corresponding language groups. These assessments rarely take into account the bilinguals’ differential needs for their two or more languages or the different social functions of these languages, i.e. what a language is used for, with whom and where (see here).

Even experimental work has sometimes led to a straightforward comparison of monolinguals and bilinguals. Some researchers, admittedly a minority, even talk of “a bilingual disadvantage” (instead of “a bilingual difference”), when the results obtained by bilinguals do not meet those of monolinguals. This clearly shows that for some the monolingual is the norm.

One other consequence that has always saddened me is the fact that bilinguals themselves often criticize their own language competence: “Yes, I use English every day at work, but I speak it so badly that I’m not really bilingual” or “I mix my languages all the time, so I’m not a real bilingual”, or even, "I have an accent in one of my languages, so I'm not bilingual" (see here). Other bilinguals strive their hardest to reach monolingual norms, and still others hide their knowledge of their “weaker” language(s).

Over the years, I have defended a bilingual or holistic view of bilingualism which proposes that the bilingual is an integrated whole which cannot easily be decomposed into two separate parts. Bilinguals are NOT the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals; rather, they have a unique and specific linguistic configuration. The coexistence and constant interaction of the two or more languages in bilinguals has produced a different but complete language system.

The analogy I use refers back to the title of this post and comes from the domain of track and field. Hurdlers blend two types of competencies, that of high jumping and that of sprinting, into an integrated whole. When compared individually with sprinters or high jumpers, hurdlers meet neither level of competence, and yet when taken as a whole hurdlers are athletes in their own right. No expert in track and field would ever compare hurdlers to sprinters or high jumpers, even though the former blend certain characteristics of the latter two.

In many ways, bilinguals are like hurdlers: unique and specific communicators. Apart from a few exceptions (e.g. translators and interpreters; see here), bilinguals use their two (or more) languages, separately or together, for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Because the needs and uses of the two languages are usually quite different, bilinguals are rarely equally or completely fluent in their two or more languages. Levels of fluency in a language will depend on the need for that language and will be domain specific.

This holistic view of bilinguals has evolved in parallel in the work of other colleagues such as Newcastle University Professor Vivian Cook who studies the multi-competence of second-language learners and bilinguals. It has also been upheld by researcher Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, who has examined, among other things, multilingual norms in the evaluation of bilingual children and adults.

Many others reflect this holistic view in their thinking and in their research …. a real plus for all of us who are bilingual!

Photo courtesy of Eckhard Pecher, Wikimedia Commons.


Grosjean, F. (2010). The bilingual as a competent but specific speaker-hearer. In Cruz-Ferreira, M. (Ed.). Multilingual Norms. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010 (19-31). This chapter originally appeared in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

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