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A Bilingual Challenge

Writing a book in your other language

Post written by François Grosjean.

In my last post, I wrote that I needed to take a short break from my blog so as to meet another academic challenge. Six months have gone by since then and the challenge has been met–I have just finished a book on bilingualism in my other language, French.

Bilingual writers have always fascinated me and a short while back, I marveled at those who write in their second or third languages. I also expressed amazement at those few who write their works in two languages (see here). Never did I imagine that I would get to live that very experience for a few months.

My usual working language is English (see here) and apart from a few academic papers and a statistics primer written with a French colleague, I have not written in French, certainly not a full scale book. More than a year ago, however, I signed a contract with a leading Parisian publisher to do just that thinking that it would be child's play. After all, I am fluent in both English and French, I've been working on bilingualism, the topic of my new book, for more than thirty years, and I was going to address a general public.

I soon realized though that it would be a challenge. First, during the preparation stage, I had to read up on bilingualism in the French-speaking world ("la Francophonie") which comprises some 30 countries which have French as an official language (sometimes shared with other languages). Assessing the degree of bilingualism in these countries wasn't an easy task as their censuses do not systematically ask about bi- or multilingualism, if they ask about languages at all. For example, neither France nor Belgium ask language questions whereas other countries such as Canada and Switzerland do (see here).

I also had to find studies in French on the various aspects of bilingualism that I would be dealing with as I couldn't expect my future readers to read the ones written in English that I usually refer to. In addition, there are aspects of bilingualism that interest the French-speaking world more than in English-speaking countries such as the opinions people have of their languages and of multilingualism. I also had to find examples of bilingual language behavior such as code-switching and borrowing in which French was involved. And finally, I had to make sure that I had all the appropriate translation equivalents of the concepts I would be dealing with throughout my book.

But all that was the easy part! The actual writing process was far harder than I had imagined even though I write French without any problem and have lectured in that language for the last twenty years. I quickly realized that my writing style, very much influenced by my years of writing in English, simply had to become more French. I usually write short sentences with few clauses but written French requires far longer sentences with many subordinate clauses. In addition, written French usually takes on an impersonal, rather formal, tone. For example, I simply didn't feel I could give personal examples the way I do in English.

I also left out people's testimonies which have their place in non-fiction prose in English. Thus, at the beginning of my book Bilingual: Life and Reality, I describe the many bilinguals I had met on a particular morning–the baker's wife, my garage mechanic, even children in the local day-care across from where I live. I didn't feel this would be appropriate for French-speaking readers, and so I opted to start with the bilingualism of famous French people such as Napoleon (his first language was Corsican and he only learned French at age six), the famous researcher and Nobel laureate, Marie Curie, who was originally Polish but had done all her work in France, as well as the bilingual writer Samuel Beckett, also a Nobel prize winner, who wrote his books in both English and French.

On the level of vocabulary, written French has a tendency to use unfamiliar, rather specialized, terms which must not be repeated too soon after having been used. Writers have to find ways around this either by using pronouns or finding synonyms. The problem though is that specialized words don't have exact synonyms and one is loathe to use words with slightly different meanings. And, of course, I had to be careful to avoid false friends which are near homographs in English and French but with different meanings (see here).

After a while, I found my French stride and wrote my book in four months. As I was doing so, though, my mind would often go back to bilingual authors who have written about the difficulties of writing in their two languages, or of translating their work from one language to the other. In both cases, they find that they produce very different books. Having now finished my new book, I know exactly what they mean; it is very different from the one that I wrote on the same topic in English a few years ago!

I would like to end this post with a wonderful piece of news. Professor Aneta Pavlenko has very kindly agreed to be a guest blogger these coming months. I introduced Aneta Pavlenko in an earlier post (see here) and asked her some questions about her new book, The Bilingual Mind. She is herself a speaker of many languages and has researched numerous aspects of bilingualism such as thinking and speaking in two languages, the bilingual mental lexicon, bilingualism and emotions, crosslinguistic influence in bilinguals, and second language learning. Welcome on board, Aneta; it will be a joy to have you as a guest blogger!

Photo of a man using a laptop from Shutterstock.


Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area.

François Grosjean's website.

Aneta Pavlenko's website.

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