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What You Didn't Know About François Grosjean

Fifty years in the field of bilingualism

Interview conducted by Aneta Pavlenko.

This year marks a special anniversary for François Grosjean – fifty years in the field of bilingualism. His concepts and ideas now form the foundations of the field and his books have inspired numerous others, myself included. But how much do we know about their enigmatic author? To learn what makes François tick, I conducted an ‘anniversary interview’.

Your recent book, A la recherche de Roger et Sallie (2016), is dedicated to your unconventional parents and their career in international espionage (see here). You clearly share your parents’ love of travel and discovery but did Roger and Sallie share your interest in languages?

I explain in the first chapter of my new book, which I am currently translating into English, that I did not grow up with my parents. I first lived with a foster mother in a small village near Paris and then I spent ten years in boarding schools, in Switzerland and England. My father knew some English since he spent a year in England during World War II and was part of the Double Cross system run by MI5 (see here). But after that, his English quickly withered away and he was basically monolingual.

My English mother, on the other hand, became trilingual as an adult, first adding French to her repertoire and then Italian. When my first book on bilingualism came out in 1982, I sent her a copy. Many years later, I inherited all her documents - I had been estranged from her since the age of 16 - and I found the book with annotations. I took it that she too was interested in what it means to live with two or more languages.

Many readers assume that you grew up in multilingual Switzerland, yet you were raised as a monolingual speaker in France until the age of eight. How did you become bilingual and Swiss?

This might sound astonishing, but when I was eight, my mother abducted me from my foster home - my parents had divorced and my father had visiting rights - and she took me to Switzerland. There she put me in an English boarding school and within a year I was bilingual in French and English. I stayed there for six years, in contact with the cultures of the other boys, mainly British and American. She then decided that the school wasn't strict enough, and she transferred me to a boarding school in England. I didn't come back to Switzerland, apart from a few vacations, before the age of 40. But it was meant to be part of my mosaic of cultures and I now live here.

You first got interested in bilingualism during your studies in France and England, and then deepened your interest during your time as an academic in the USA. What is it about these three largely monolingual environments that prompted you to look at bilingualism of all things?

Maybe it was precisely because of the monolingualism in these countries that I wanted to discover who I was - a bilingual and bicultural person. My MA thesis in Paris 50 years ago was the beginning of a long journey trying to understand those of us who live with two or more languages, in one or several cultures. It also led me to develop my holistic view of bilingualism which states that the bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person (see here). And then I worked on what it means to be bicultural, something that I needed to do to come to grips with who I was (see here).

One of the key concepts you pioneered is the notion of mode, monolingual vs bilingual, but is it truly possible for bilinguals to be in the monolingual mode?

The language mode concept explains how bilinguals, in their everyday interactions, keep their languages separate or let them intermingle depending on a number of factors (see here). When in a monolingual mode, only one language is used and the others are deactivated, mainly because you do not need them, or you cannot use them, at that particular time. The question is whether they can be totally deactivated.

Experimental data show that this can indeed be the case based on various linguistic and psycholinguistic factors (for an example, see here). And on a more personal level, most bilinguals have been through the experience of being "shocked" to hear someone utter a word or sentence from a language they know but did not expect from that person. This can even lead to momentary comprehension difficulties until the other, deactivated, language kicks in.

What do you see as some of the key changes and breakthroughs of the past fifty years, in academic research and in the attitudes towards bilingualism in the world at large?

When I first started working on bilingualism, the researchers in the field were few and far between, and the books and publications rather sparse. The language sciences concentrated on monolinguals as they had done for many years before. Since then, things have changed dramatically, and bilingualism research is extremely widespread and very exciting. There are even academic journals dedicated just to bilingualism. One that I helped found, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, now has the third highest impact factor in 180 linguistics journals!

As for attitudes towards bilingualism, there has been a rather strong shift from insisting on the dangers of bilingualism to lauding its advantages. One must be careful not to go too far here, though, as both you and I have stated in our posts (see here and here).

What do you think are the most critical questions for the new generation of researchers? If you were to begin your research from scratch in the year 2017 what do you think you would study?

There are probably two areas, among others, I would encourage younger colleagues to delve into. The first is better understanding the psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics of code-switching and borrowing - what is often known as language mixing (see here). These are areas that are not yet well studied experimentally and I think new studies could reveal many fascinating things.

The other area concerns biculturalism and how it impacts on bilingualism. Studies have rarely divided up their bilingual participants into those who are monocultural - remember that many bilinguals are members of just one culture - and those who are bicultural. Interacting frequently with two or more cultures will no doubt have a profound impact on how languages are stored and are processed.

What are your current projects and what should we be looking forward to in the years to come?

I am currently finishing a book with Dr. Krista Byers-Heinlein on speech perception and comprehension in bilingual adults and children (for some of her recent work, see here). I'll then work on a book relating my own journey in languages and cultures and how it has influenced my research over the years. It has been an amazing adventure and I look forward to sharing it with others (see here).

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo courtesy of Maj-Britt Isberner.


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

Aneta Pavlenko's website

François Grosjean's website

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