Those Amazing Special Bilinguals

Exceptional people in the world of bilingualism

Posted Nov 04, 2019

This blog, "Life as a bilingual", is mainly about regular, everyday bilinguals–that is, the great majority of adults and children who lead their lives with two or more languages. All groups of individuals have exceptional members and some bilinguals have a regular, but also at times, a unique relationship with their languages.

Special bilinguals are worth talking about. I do so in this blog, at different moments, and here I give a quick overview of the posts that deal with them.

The first group of special bilinguals that come to mind are second / foreign / world language teachers who juggle between their lives as bilinguals and their profession as teachers of a language, culture, and literature. They are special in a number of ways: they have insights into the linguistics of the language that regular bilinguals simply do not have; both their languages are active when they teach but many do not allow themselves to intermingle their languages and may even correct those who do; they are true admirers of the second language they teach and they have a love for its culture(s); and they sometimes hold a rather strict view of who is bilingual. Many do not believe they are themselves bilingual even though they use their two or more languages on a regular basis.

Translators and interpreters, that is those professionals who convey what has been written or said in one language into another, are also special bilinguals. There is a long-standing myth that bilinguals are born translators but in fact, apart from everyday language, bilinguals are not particularly good at translating or interpreting. As the saying so rightly states: It takes more than having two hands to be a good pianist. It takes more than knowing two languages to be a good translator or interpreter.

Translators must have a full understanding of the original text in the source language and have the necessary transfer skills, as well as the linguistic, stylistic and cultural skills in the target language to produce a correct translation.

As for interpreters, in addition to this, they must have the linguistic and cognitive skills that allow them to go from one spoken or sign language to the other, either simultaneously or successively. They have to hear (or see) the source (input) language but also the target (output) language, not only because they have to monitor what they are saying but also in case the speaker uses the target language occasionally. However, they must also close down the production mechanism of the source language so that they do not simply repeat what they are hearing. Interpreters are fascinating to talk to, as I have done here.

Another group of special bilinguals is writers who produce literary work in their second (or third) language. Among these we find Joseph Conrad, Agota Kristof, André Aciman, Andreï Makine, and many others. I was fortunate to interview Eva Hoffman, one such bilingual writer, about her worldwide success, Lost in Translation, written in her second language. And there are those amazing authors who write literature in both their languages–an incredible feat–and often translate from one to the other. Among the latter, special mention should be given to Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Nancy Huston, André Brink, Milan Kundera and many others. Gustavo Pérez-Firmat kindly told us about his experience as a bilingual writer and poet in a blog post.

Some special bilinguals love languages to the point of studying them, either professionally in the language sciences, or simply for the joy of mastering them. Aneta Pavlenko interviewed one such person, William Fierman, originally from St. Louis, who explains in detail how he went about learning Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Czech, and how he uses some of these languages to learn new ones!

Then there are those special bilinguals who depend on proficiency in their languages to ensure the safety of others. For example, airline pilots and air traffic controllers have to make sure that communication between them, often in a foreign language, is optimal. I interviewed Dr. Judith Burki-Cohen on this very specific kind of bilingualism.

There are also those bilinguals who have to count on their excellent knowledge of a second or third language to assure their own safety. A few years ago, I described the linguistic and cultural skills of a small group of these individuals - sleeper agents. Their language fluency must be similar to that of native speakers, they must restrict themselves to using just one language in all situations, and they are trained to behave culturally as nationals of the country they are spying on.

I'll end with foreign correspondents, who are usually bilingual and bicultural themselves, but who prepare, and write or read, their reports keeping in mind who their audience is back home. Hence they rarely switch over to their other language, and they have to explain things that may be evident in the country they are reporting from, but little known to their readers or listeners. 

I will keep looking out for special bilinguals, as their unique relationship with their languages is truly fascinating.

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here, or visit François Grosjean's website.