Keeping My Four Cultures Alive
Staying bicultural over time.
Posted Dec 06, 2019
In my recent book, A Journey in Languages and Cultures: The Life of a Bicultural Bilingual, I explain how I came into contact with four different cultures during my life and how I lived within each of them for a number of years, becoming bicultural—more precisely, quadricultural—as a consequence.
As we saw in an earlier post, bicultural people are characterized by at least three traits. First, they take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures. Second, they adapt, at least in part, their attitudes, behaviors, values, etc., to these cultures. And third, they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved. Certain characteristics come from one or the other culture whereas others are blends based on these cultures.
My early years were spent in a small village just outside Paris, and until the age of 7-and-a-half, I was a normal French boy, both linguistically and culturally. But then I moved to an English-speaking boarding school in Switzerland, learned English, and acculturated into both English and American cultures. My English side was consolidated by four years of boarding school in England.
I moved back to France for my university studies and stayed there for 10 years, before immigrating to the U.S. where my family and I stayed some 12 years. Our boys became totally American, and at the end of our stay, we were basically an English-speaking family, acculturated into life in America. But then we came back to Europe and settled down in Switzerland where we have been for some 30 years. The four cultures I came into contact with and lived in all found their place in a mosaic of cultures that characterize me.
Now that I am retired, and concentrate on writing books, chapters, and articles (see here), an interesting challenge has been to keep alive my four cultures. I would regret losing my French, English, American, and Swiss sides since they are definitely all parts of who I am. Fortunately, there are ways of keeping all of them alive, as people like me have discovered.
First, it is important to maintain ties with family members and close friends in your cultures. We visit ours whenever we can and they come over to see us. We also communicate via email and messaging services, something that was simply not possible only 30 years ago. In addition, my wife and I go up to Paris several times a year. It is the city where we studied, where we met 50 years ago, and where we have many friends. We are always amazed by how these short trips revive our French cultural side.
The internet is a great way to stay in touch with every aspect of one's many cultures. I'm an avid online newspaper reader and I start my day with the latest news from America and Great Britain before shifting over to the French and Swiss media. And throughout the day, I check on headlines on my favorite sites, navigating between countries and languages.
I also listen to radio programs, and sometimes watch TV, in my four countries whilst I am doing various activities at home. For example, as I am preparing lunch, I listen to WBUR, Boston's NPR news station. I am physically in Switzerland but my mind is in Boston where I "wake up" with New Englanders who are listening to the Morning Edition. I learn about the weather they have there, whether the inbound commute is fluid or not, and whether my favorite Bostonian teams have won or lost the day before. I can visualize all that I hear having lived there for so many years. I repeat this in the evening as I work out and do various house chores.
Choosing one's radio programs carefully is a wonderful way of keeping abreast of events that are happening "back home" and assessing how people are reacting to them. Of course, having lived for extended periods of time in all my countries, I am attuned to their differences. So I'm not too surprised by the slow-paced BBC4 news discussions and the more heated, and sometimes less organized, debates on French radio.
The web also allows me to interact with all those involved in my writing projects, across my different cultures. These can be coauthors or invited authors, publication editors, as well as production managers. I have written books and articles, and given interviews, in all the countries I identify with, and in both my working languages.
Finally, the content of my writing—bilingualism and biculturalism—encourages me to keep studying the linguistic and cultural diversity of my four cultures. When I wrote a recent book in French on bilingualism, I did a lot of background work to show how linguistically diverse France is, contrary to general belief. I have been doing the same thing for the United States for my books in English and for this very blog, which is in its ninth year (for example, see here).
I am proud to have roots in all these cultures and am doing my best to keep them alive.
With this post, the blog has reached the 2 million visitors mark. My thanks go to Aneta Pavlenko, who shared the blog with me for four and a half years, and to all those who have come to "Life as a Bilingual" to discover those who live with two or more languages.
François Grosjean (2019). A Journey in Languages and Cultures: The Life of a Bicultural Bilingual. Oxford / New York: Oxford University Press.