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The Bilingual Mind

Language and thought in bi- and multilinguals

Post written by François Grosjean.

Temple University professor, Aneta Pavlenko, has just written a ground-breaking book, The Bilingual Mind, on the intriguing relationship between language and thought in bi- and multilinguals. She is herself a speaker of many languages and has researched this topic for much of her career. She has very kindly accepted to answer a few questions about her book.

Your work is inspired by the writings of some renowned linguists and anthropologists such as Humboldt, Boas, Sapir and Whorf. What role did they play exactly?

These scholars are commonly seen as proponents of linguistic relativity, the idea that different languages shape different worlds for their speakers. This idea is highly controversial and yet at the heart of the debate is a profound misunderstanding–and a deliberate misrepresentation–of Sapir’s and Whorf’s actual views. When we go back to their writings, we see that these multilingual scholars, interested in language change, did not believe for a moment that language determines thought. If it did, both language change and successful second language learning would have been impossible. In the book, I attempt to solve this linguistic whodunit, identify the real authors of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and then return to the original questions raised by Humboldt, Sapir, and Whorf about what happens when we learn a new language.

What do you mean by the expression "the bilingual mind"?

I use the expression ‘the bilingual mind’ to draw attention to the fact that most of the world’s population is bi- or multilingual and to argue that this bi-/multilingualism matters for our understanding of human cognition. The process of learning and using language affects categorization, memory, perception, and self-perception; learning another language may reshape these processes and reorganize the structure of the mind.

You mention "language effects" in your discussion of the bilingual mind. Could you explain what you mean?

This term refers to demands individual languages place on our cognitive processes in terms of categorical judgments and allocation of attention. Some require us to mark whether the action is accomplished or still in progress, and others require us to say whether we personally witnessed particular events. Learning a new language requires us to allocate our resources differently and acquire new categorical distinctions and ways of parsing events.

You state that when one acquires a second language, cognitive restructuring takes place. Can you explain what this is?

Cognitive restructuring refers to self-reorganization of linguistic categories that takes place when we learn a second language. Take, for instance, English/Russian word pairs cup/chashka and glass/stakan. Russian speakers learning English will begin by associating the English words ‘cup’ and ‘glass’ with the already existing representations of ‘chashka’ and ‘stakan’. But this can only take them so far, because in English we call paper, plastic, and styrofoam containers for coffee on the go ‘cups’ and in Russian they are ‘stakanchiki’ (little glasses). To use English appropriately, the learner has to restructure the pre-existing representations, in the case of ‘glass’, for instance, shifting attention from shape to material. And this is just one simple example of the myriad of cognitive adjustments in lexical and grammatical categories that take place when we acquire a second language.

What are the main factors that account for this restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a very new direction in research on bilingualism. As a consequence, we are only beginning to understand its process and the factors that affect it. In my own view, the key factor involves language use in communication, in meaningful contexts and in the presence of physical objects. The co-occurrence of form and meaning allows us to form new connections between words and their referents and to learn to pay attention to distinctions required by the second language.

How has your own multilingualism influenced your thinking on this topic?

First, my multilingualism provides me with experiential insights into what it means to live in two or more languages. Secondly, my working languages–French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, and my native Russian–offer access to a large body of literature that I can read in the original, which is particularly important in the case of Bakhtin, Luria, and Vygotsky who had been badly mistranslated into English.

In your book, you refer to a large amount of scholarly work, from many different sources, but you also call upon biographies, literature including poetry, as well as personal testimonies. Can you say a bit more about this?

Certainly. I deeply believe that our scholarship is only meaningful insofar as it can speak to real people and address their everyday problems and dilemmas. This is why I try to make connections between studies conducted in the experimental lab and autobiographical writing and poetry, which, in my view–and that of Vygotsky and Sapir–offers unprecedented access to people’s inner worlds. The mixing also reflects my academic bilingualism. My training took place in two academic surroundings, Russian- and English-speaking, and while I write in English, I draw on the Russian academic tradition of interweaving research with fiction and poetry.

At one point in your book, you state that you are "irreverent by nature". How has this trait helped you in your work?

From the first day of graduate school, I never assumed that I should be buying into this or that theory and have continuously questioned the premises and foundations of our research enterprise. I suspect that this unruly behavior made me a pest and a nuisance to my professors, yet it also made me a better scholar because it led me to disrespect artificial boundaries between fields and paradigms. Conducting experimental research taught me healthy respect for the challenges of empirical science, while sociolinguistic theories offered me tools necessary for critical evaluation of the scientific enterprise. Irreverence also makes me a better writer, or at least it makes writing more fun.

You sometimes show concern about the work of some psychologists, applied linguists, anthropologists and even translators. Why is that?

In the case of psychology, my main concern is with the treatment of bilingual participants. Some researchers exclude bilinguals as ‘unusual’ or ‘messy’ subjects and others treat them as representative speakers of their first languages, brushing aside any potential effects of second language learning. In the case of linguistics and anthropology, my main concern is with the researchers’ own bilingualism. Despite being linguists, we hold ourselves to an abysmally low standard as language learners. My concerns are reinforced by the many errors I see in the treatments of Russian in translation and in scholarly literature that sometimes does not even get the basic facts right.

Where do you see research on the bilingual mind going in the next ten years?

I see three main directions for research in the next decade. The first and the most straightforward will apply existing approaches to the study of other language combinations and different types of bi- and multilinguals. The second will examine whether language influences on cognition are also subject to plasticity effects; in other words, is there a critical period for learning to attend to categorical distinctions and motion trajectories in a native-like way? The third direction is to go beyond the study of acquisition of English, French, or German by immigrants and foreign language learners and to consider ways in which speakers of major world languages–including researchers–acquire languages spoken by small groups of people.

More generally, if you had one wish that could come true regarding bi- and multilinguals, what would it be?

This is an interesting and unexpected question. I guess, I would want people who speak more than one language to experience less anxiety about their languages, fewer concerns about perceived limitations and deficiencies and more joy and pride. When I come to workshops and conferences in your homeland, Switzerland, I witness amazing presentations and exchanges taking place in German, French, and English. Yet I also see my multilingual colleagues and their students being concerned about the limitations of their English, deficiencies in their German, or the wrong accent in their French. To end with your words that became a motto for my whole research agenda, a bilingual is not a sum of two monolinguals but a unique speaker/hearer in his/her own right. So let’s take pride in our linguistic abilities and achievements.

Photo of a young woman from Shutterstock.


Pavlenko, Aneta (in press). The Bilingual Mind And What It Tells Us About Language And Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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François Grosjean's website.

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