"How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart." I was troubled at first as I have defended bi- and multilinguals most of my academic life, not broken their hearts! "/> InCultureParent | François Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart

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Sunday, January 29th, 2012

François Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart

Francois Grosjean would never break a multilingual heart/ © Olivier Le Moal - Fotolia.com

At the end of last year, the title of a post by Jan Petersen on InCultureParent caught my attention: “How Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart.” I was troubled at first as I have defended bi- and multilinguals most of my academic life, not broken their hearts!

So I read on and immediately felt reassured….and exonerated. I wasn’t really the one who had broken Jan Petersen’s heart in my Psychology Today post, “Helen or Hélène.” Instead, it seemed to have been one of the luminaries of modern bilingualism research, Uriel Weinreich. At that point, I asked myself fleetingly why it wasn’t the latter who had his name in the title of the post! This said, I continued reading. The problem seemed to be Weinreich’s quip that “few language users are poets.” Note here that Weinreich did not say “few bilinguals or multilinguals” but more generally “few language users” which includes monolinguals, of course.

It is worth understanding why Weinreich made this remark which, on the face of it, is correct. How many of us are poets, at least in the traditional sense of writers of poems in verse? Not that many, I’m afraid.

Weinreich was discussing how bilinguals, speaking a particular language, borrow words or short expressions from their other language(s). This is a well-known, and rather frequent, phenomenon in bilingualism that occurs for various reasons that I cover in my post “Helen or Hélène”: they want to use the right word; the word they need belongs to a domain they normally talk about in their other language; the language they are speaking does not have a word for what they want to express, and so on.

I explain in my post that those who have migrated to a different country have often found themselves faced with having to speak about new realities and new distinctions in their native language. The latter simply does not have all the vocabulary needed, and hence borrowing ready-made words is more economical than describing things afresh. It is at this point that Uriel Weinreich’s quip comes in—bilinguals borrow words instead of inventing new ones.

I think I can safely say that Uriel Weinreich never had any intention of breaking a multilingual’s heart and I certainly did not.

If one continues reading Jan Petersen’s post, one realizes that the topic isn’t really about language users as poets or word inventors but rather that many bi- and multilinguals, especially those who have emigrated from other countries, find that with time their first language is being restructured due to the impact of the new language(s) and culture(s). Jan Petersen asks whether he can get his German back (not that he has totally lost it) and after having answered positively, he proposes some very concrete ways of doing so.

What all this tells me is that we need to encourage and cherish all those who know and use two or more languages in the world today, as well as help them—especially children and adolescents—go through periods of language restructuring. Despite the difficulties these moments may entail, the advantages of being bi- or multilingual clearly outstrip the inconveniences.

One never regrets knowing several languages, even if the latter wax and wane during one’s lifetime, but one can certainly regret not knowing enough.

François Grosjean’s webpage can be found here: www.francoisgrosjean.ch
and his blog, “Life as a Bilingual,” here: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual

© 2012 – 2013, Francois Grosjean. All rights reserved.

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François Grosjean received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the U.S. in 1974 where he taught and did research in Psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern, he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed Professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). His domains of interest are the perception, comprehension and production of speech, bilingualism and biculturalism, sign language and the bilingualism of the Deaf, the evaluation of speech comprehension in aphasic patients, as well as the modeling of language processing. His website is www.francoisgrosjean.ch and he has a separate blog at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-bilingual .

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsHow Francois Grosjean Broke My Multilingual Heart | InCultureParent   |  Sunday, 29 January 2012 at 5:29 pm

    […] special promotions. We don't spam, sell or trade your email ever. Birth, Loss and In Between François Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart….Not Breaking It My Childhood in Africa as a Serbo-CroatianChildren’s Books: 7 Global Favorites Why African Babies […]

  2. CommentsBilingual Writers and Colonialism | InCultureParent   |  Wednesday, 11 April 2012 at 12:17 am

    […] funny how things go sometimes. After reading Francois Grosjean’s recent article about Cherishing the Multilingual Heart, I started looking for authors that are multilingual. I have to admit that I didn’t get very […]

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