François Grosjean Responds: Cherishing the Multilingual Heart

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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

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