Clearing Up Common Myths About What It Means to Be Bilingual

"One can become bilingual at any time during one's life -- as a child, as an adolescent, or as an adult. There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one's life with two or more languages."
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"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."

These are the closing words of a recent piece by Professor François Grosjean in the Psychology Today blog.

Grosjean is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University in Switzerland. He is a world-recognized expert on bilingualism and the author of three books on the topic. His latest book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, came out in 2010. I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with him on bilingualism, translation, and interpreting.

Nataly Kelly:
What is the myth that you most commonly encounter about bilingualism?

François Grosjean: There are many myths, I'm afraid: bilinguals are rare and have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages; real bilinguals have acquired their two or more languages in childhood and have no accent in either of them; all bilinguals are also bicultural; switching between languages is a sign of laziness in bilinguals; bilinguals are born translators or interpreters; bilingualism will delay language acquisition in children and have negative effects on their development; and so on.

NK: What advice would you give to people who say, "I'm too old to learn a language"?

FG: Some people believe you cannot be a "real" bilingual if you have not acquired your two languages in infancy or at least as a young child. In fact, one can become bilingual at any time during one's life -- as a child, as an adolescent, or as an adult. There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one's life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language with the exception of pronunciation skills.

NK: What about people who say, "I just don't have a talent for languages?"

FG: We are all language communicators and being bilingual is simply communicating in two or more languages. The crucial factor underlying becoming bilingual is the need for another language -- the need to interact with others, to study or work, to take part in social activities and so on. If the need is present, then language acquisition will usually take place. This is true of children as it is of adults. Of course, this is different from learning a language in a formal setting and doing grammar exercises and vocabulary list learning. However, this formal learning can be helped greatly if the language being acquired is used in everyday life.

NK: Is it true that some people are more gifted than others when it comes to learning languages? Or, are they simply more motivated to learn?

FG: There must be a need to acquire another language. Other factors must also be present: enough language input and use; the help of family, friends, colleagues, and the community in general; traditional language learning for some; and positive attitudes towards the language and culture in question, as well as towards bilingualism.

NK: Do you think that more people will become bilingual as time goes on? Or, do you think that the advances in translation technology will discourage people from wanting to learn other languages?

FG: I believe that there is room for both. On the one hand, being able to communicate with someone is his or her language is the optimal solution. And in some situations such as living in a new country, you simply don't have the choice. You need to become bilingual. On the other hand, we do need better language technology so that we can communicate, to some extent at least, with people whose languages we do not know.

NK: Is it true that people from English-speaking countries are "the worst" in terms of learning foreign languages?

FG: What is true is that the people living in so-called "monolingual" countries where millions of people only speak one language (the United States, France, Germany, Japan, etc.) do not have the need to acquire another language. And even if they do learn a second language at school, they rarely have the opportunity to practice it, unfortunately.

NK: So many people forget a language after they've studied it, due to lack of use. How much of a language stays with us after we've forgotten it?

FG: This is a badly studied aspect of language learning but it would appear that much more remains than we would have thought at first. The language just needs to be reactivated and aspects of it relearned.

NK: You have written extensively about the rights of deaf children to gain proficiency in the majority language, at least in the written form. How common is bilingualism among the Deaf community, and what are the biggest barriers for deaf children to obtain proficiency in two languages?

FG: If one accepts that one can be bilingual in a sign language and the written form of a spoken language, then many Deaf people are bilingual. The problem is that with the advent of cochlear implants, many deaf children are not taught sign language and hence are not bilingual. In my "The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual" which has been translated into some 35 languages, I make a strong case for allowing deaf children to grow up with two languages, the majority language of the country or region they live in and the sign language used by the Deaf community they naturally belong to.

NK: The market for translation and interpreting has been growing steadily, even throughout the global economic downturn. Due to this growth in demand, many in the industry are concerned about the qualifications of the translators and interpreters hired to do the work. In many cases, there have been reports of individuals being hired who are not truly proficient in both languages at the levels required for this kind of work. What is your view on the level of bilingualism required for translation and interpreting work, compared to other types of jobs that require bilingualism?

FG: In two posts on my blog, "Desperately seeking a final translation" and "Those incredible interpreters", I stress the "special bilingual" nature of professional translators and interpreters. For example, translators must have a complete set of translation equivalents in the other language (at least in the domains concerned). They must also know the two languages (or dialects) fluently, at all linguistic levels, and they must avoid all the usual translation traps such as false friends and literal translations. As for interpreters, in addition to all this, they must have all the linguistic and cognitive skills that allow them to go from one language to the other, either simultaneously or successively. It is no wonder that translators and interpreters are considered special bilinguals!

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