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Noam Chomsky on Bilingualism

Remembering an interview with Noam Chomsky on bilingualism

Post written by François Grosjean.

A few years after having written my first book on bilingualism (Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism), I contacted Professor Noam Chomsky at MIT to ask him whether he would be kind enough to give me a bit of his time to talk about bilinguals and bilingualism. He very kindly accepted and the interview took place in his office in the now famous Building 20 at MIT.

I was still a young academic at the time and I was touched that such a illustrious linguist would spend some time with me discussing a topic that has always intrigued me. As I am writing this post, many years later, I feel all the more honored to have had this moment with him.

Noam Chomsky started off by saying that he knew very little about bilingualism but as our conversation continued, he clearly showed that he had given it some thought. Four topics marked the interview. The first was that Noam Chomsky was not convinced that there is a sharp difference between monolingualism and bilingualism. As he stated: "I'm about as monolingual as you come, but nevertheless I have a variety of different languages at my command, different styles, different ways of talking, which do involve different parameter settings."

I kept coming back to this first point throughout the interview (for me, bilinguals ARE different from monolinguals) and a bit later on when I asked him whether shifting styles is really the same as shifting languages, he did add, "It's different in degree, very different, VERY different in degree, so different in degree that you could call it a difference of quality. Because, after all, degree differences do turn into quality differences." For Noam Chomsky, the really interesting question is how a particular system of the mind can be simultaneously in several different states, and whether this is unique to the language faculty. He believes that it isn't.

A second topic we spent some time on concerned whether you can lose a first language in adulthood. (In an earlier post I discussed this relative to children forgetting their native language; see here). Noam Chomsky didn't think you could and argued that there is some sort of residual storage. He took the example of a 60 year-old man who hasn't spoken German since age 20 and who no longer seems to be able to use it. The real test for him would be to see how quickly he could relearn it. He was convinced that the person would learn German a lot faster than if he were starting from scratch and he added that he would probably learn it with the right pronunciation, the right nuances and so on. As he stated, "My guess is that you can't really erase the system".

A third topic concerned the permanent influence of a second language on a first language in a prolonged language contact situation. In an earlier post (see here), I described a set of studies we had conducted that seemed to show that a second language (French) can have a real impact on a first language (Spanish in this case) when the former is used much more than the latter for an extensive period of time. We had used acceptability judgments and had found quite a large influence of French on Spanish, the first language of the adult immigrants we tested. They had arrived as adult Spanish monolingual speakers twenty years before.

For Noam Chomsky, however, the native language competence of the immigrants had not in fact been changed. Rather, it was their cognitive style that was now different. He suggested that when you move into a foreign language environment, your standards on grammatical acceptability are lowered because you are confronted with many ways of saying things, in the one or the other language, or in both. This change in cognitive style may thus explain the way you react to your native language, but it should not influence your knowledge of your native language.

In our research, we subsequently used a translation task and we obtained similar results which made us think that the impact of an immigrant language, over a lengthy period of time, can be quite profound. This work was done several years after the interview, though.

Finally, I asked Noam Chomsky why linguists, most notably theoretical linguists, had spent so little time studying bilingualism. After all, wasn't half the world's population bi- or multilingual? He did not play down the interest of understanding people who know and use several languages but he thought that theoretical linguists should start with simple cases, that is with monolinguals. For him, the argument is the same as for chemists who study H2O and not other types of water that contain other substances. To understand the latter, you have to start with the former. As he stated, "The only way to deal with the complexities of the real world is by studying pure cases and trying to determine from them the principles that interact in the complex cases." This is taken for granted in the physical sciences, according to him, and it should also be in the non-physical sciences.

Our meeting lasted about an hour and I came away with some answers but also additional questions and a few doubts. This said, I felt honored to have spent some time with one of the great thinkers of our time, and I still feel that way so many years later.

Photo of Noam Chomsky courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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