The Mysteries of Bilingualism I

Aspects of bilingualism that remain enigmatic.

Posted Jul 23, 2013

Post written by François Grosjean.

Over the past three years, as I put the finishing touches to some of my posts, I often told myself that the phenomenon that I had just described remained enigmatic. In this post, and in some of my future posts, I will come back to these mysteries of bilingualism. I will evoke three, quite different, topics each time, and discuss how little we really know about each one.

The first pertains to how many bilinguals there are. It has been estimated that half, or a bit more than half, of the world's population is bilingual, that is uses two of more languages (or dialects) in everyday life. A few researchers think there are many more. Thus, University of Illinois researcher Kim Potowski in her TED talk on the benefits of bilingualism increases the proportion to 65% which seems a bit too much (see here).

In a previous post on the topic, I explained that national censuses or surveys rarely have a question on bilingualism itself (see here). The language questions that are asked, IF they are asked (for example, Belgium has not enquired about language use since its 1947 census), are not always appropriate or they reflect a certain partiality concerning what it means to know a language or to be bilingual. In my post, I took two examples of national censuses–the one in the United States and the one in Switzerland–and showed how quite official data can sometimes produce very surprising results.

Thus, a first analysis of the Swiss results seemed to show that there are less bilinguals in Switzerland (15.8%), a country known for its multilingualism, than in the United States (a bit less than 20%). Since then, Swiss Statistics has examined the answers to other language questions and has come up with a more reasonable percentage: 41.9% of the population use two or more languages or dialects in everyday life. This said, we are still a long way away from knowing how extensive bilingualism is in the world today.

My second topic leaves numbers far behind and enters the world of emotions, specifically how and why one falls in love with a culture and a language. I have always been intrigued by people who become enamored with a country or a people and their language. In a post on the topic (see here), I evoked Julia Child's coup de foudre with France. On her very first day in France, Julia and her husband drove from Le Havre to Paris, and after only a few hours she reflected, "Oh, la belle France .... without knowing it, I was already falling in love!".

With that kind of disposition, she made rapid progress in French, a language she did not know when she arrived, and after one year she spoke it quite well. In addition, through the people she met in and around the cooking school she attended, she quickly became acculturated. She writes in her book with Alex Prud'homme, My Life in France, "I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life."

Julia Child only lived in France for six years before heading off to Germany and then back to the United States and national fame. But she invariably came back to her "other home" as do many like her who fall for another culture and another language. Since the reasons are so personal and are different from one person to the other, there is a mystery linked to this. It is all the more enigmatic for those who take that particular culture and language for granted as do many local inhabitants.

The third topic concerns bilinguals who are also bicultural. Biculturals are characterized by at least three traits: they take part in the life of two or more cultures, they adapt their attitudes, behaviors and values to these cultures, and 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.

The mystery that is linked to biculturalism is how far biculturals can deactivate certain traits of their other culture(s) when in a monocultural mode. They sometimes need to do this when they feel that they have to behave in a monocultural way (e.g. welcome monocultural acquaintances, hold a meeting according to the rules of a particular culture, deal with monocultural business partners, etc.).

As I wrote in the post on this topic (see here), because of the blending component in biculturalism, certain attitudes, behaviors, feelings, etc. may never be totally monocultural. I have noticed that biculturals often produce blends in their greeting behaviors such as when shaking hands with someone (how firm the handshake? at the beginning and at the end of the encounter?) or greeting a woman friend with a kiss (who does one kiss exactly? how many kisses?). One also finds these blends in hand gestures, the amount of space one leaves between people, what one should talk about when invited to someone's home, and so on.

In a post on sleeper agents who are very special kinds of bicultural bilinguals (see here), I stated that they are trained to behave fully as nationals of the country they are spying on. They must put aside every aspect of their other culture and be "pure" members of the culture they are living in. How they manage to never let attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors of their other culture filter through remains an even greater mystery. Hopefully one day we may know more about the underlying cognitive mechanisms that allow them to do this so completely.

Part II of The Mysteries of Bilingualism can be found here.

Photo of the Sherlock Holmes silhouette from Shutterstock.

Relevant posts

- How many are we?

- Falling in love with a culture and a language

- How cultures combine and blend in a person

- The linguistic and cultural skills of sleeper agents

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area.

François Grosjean's website.