François Grosjean is Professor Emeritus at Neuchâtel University (Switzerland). His new book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, which the Montreal Gazette calls“gentle, humorous, civilized”, explores the many aspects of bilingualism—from what it means to be bilingual, to the impact of having an accent in one language or the other, to the effects of bilingualism on children. Bilingualism is an important topic, and often a misunderstood one. Below, Grosjean deconstructs some common, internationally held misconceptions about bilingualism and the bilingual.
I have had the chance to live and work for extended periods of time in at least three countries, the United States, Switzerland and France, and as a researcher on bilingualism, it has allowed me to learn a lot about my topic of interest. I have found that people in these countries share many misconceptions about bilingualism and bilinguals but that they also have very country-specific attitudes towards them.
Among shared misunderstandings, one is that bilingualism is a rare phenomenon. In fact, it has been estimated that more than half of the world's population is bilingual, that is uses two or more languages in everyday life. Bilingualism is found in all parts of the world, at all levels of society, in all age groups. Another common misconception is that bilinguals have equal knowledge of their languages. In fact, bilinguals know their languages to the level that they need them and many are dominant in one of them.
There are also the myths that real bilinguals do not have an accent in their different languages and that they are excellent all-around translators. This is far from being true. Having an accent or not does not make one more or less bilingual, and bilinguals often have difficulties translating specialized language. Then there is the misconception that all bilinguals are bicultural (they are not) and that they have double personalities (as a bilingual myself, and with a sigh of relief, I can tell you that this is not the case).
As concerns children, many worries and misconceptions are also widespread. The first is that bilingualism will delay language acquisition in young children. This was a popular myth in the first part of the last century, but there is no research evidence to that effect. Their rate of language acquisition is the same as that of their monolingual counterparts. There is also the fear that children raised bilingual will always mix their languages. In fact, they adapt to the situation they are in. When they interact in monolingual situations (e.g. with Grandma who doesn't speak their other language), they will respond monolingually; if they are with other bilinguals, then they may well code-switch. Finally, there is the worry that bilingualism will affect negatively the cognitive development of bilingual children. Recent research appears to show the contrary; bilingual children do better than monolingual children in certain cognitive tasks.
Aside from these common misunderstandings, certain attitudes are specific to countries and areas of the world. In Europe, for example, bilingualism is seen favorably but people have very high standards for who should be considered bilingual. The latter should have perfect knowledge of their languages, have no accent in them, and even, in some countries, have grown up with their two (or more) languages. At that rate, very few people consider themselves bilingual even though, in Switzerland for example, the majority of the inhabitants know and use two or more languages in their everyday life.
How about the United States? Einar Haugen, a pioneer of bilingualism studies, has stated that the US has probably been the home of more bilingual speakers than any other country in the world. Bilingualism here is very diverse, pairing English with Native American languages, older colonial languages, recent immigration languages, and so on. This said, it is not very extensive at any one time. Currently, only 17% of the population is bilingual as compared to much higher percentages in many other countries of the world. This is not due to the fact that new immigrants are not learning English. The reason, rather, is that bilingualism is basically short-lived and transitional in this country.