What Bilingualism is Not

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 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 U.S. has probably been the home of more bilingual speakers than any other country in the world. Bilingualism in the U.S. 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. For generations and generations of Americans, bilingualism has covered a brief period, spanning one or two generations, between monolingualism in a minority language and monolingualism in English.

The tolerance that America has generally shown towards minority languages over the centuries has favored the linguistic integration of its speakers. As sociologist Nathan Glazer writes, the language of minorities “shriveled in the air of freedom while they had apparently flourished under adversity in Europe.”

When Barack Obama stated that children should speak more than one language, he was probably referring to the paradox one finds in the U.S.: on the one hand, the world’s languages brought to the United States are not maintained, and they wither away, and on the other hand, only a few of them are taught in schools to too few students, and for too short a time. A national resource—the country’s knowledge of the languages of the world—is being put aside and is not being maintained.

It is important to stop equating bilingualism with not knowing English and being un-American. Bilingualism means knowing and using at least two or more languages, one of which is English in the United States. Bilingualism allows you to communicate with different people and hence to discover different cultures, thereby giving you a different perspective on the world. It increases your job opportunities and it is an asset in trade and commerce. It also allows you to be an intermediary between people who do not share the same languages.

Bilingualism is a personal enrichment and a passport to other cultures. At the very least, and to return to Barack Obama’s comment, it certainly allows you to say more than “merci beaucoup” when interacting with someone of another language. One never regrets knowing several languages but one can certainly regret not knowing enough.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay


  1. On the schizophrenia bit: were you raised with all your languages or did you acquire any of them later in life? I am asking because I think it makes a difference.

    I can feel how I am someone very slightly different in my 3 languages. I was raised monolingually and only learned English in school and French much later.

    I am pretty sure that when I speak English (outside our house, we live in the UK) or French (with my wife and some friends) I am more or less who I was when I picked those languages up. Whereas when I speak German (with my kids, family or some friends) I am ‘who I really am’ in a certain sense.

    A lot of multilinguals I know have the same feeling. And I know one guy who grew up with three languages and learned more later. For him, there is no difference between who he is when speaking one of the three, but he also feels different when speaking those he picked up later.

    I would love to see research on that topic. I’m pretty sure there is something happening there. Maybe it goes further and we can find patterns how language and personality influence each other…

  2. Hi Jan,

    For answers to your questions, Francois suggests this interview on where and when he learned his languages: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/interview_2011_en.html

    And as for the question of personality and bilingualism, he addresses the issue in Chapter 11 “Personality, thinking and dreaming, and emotions in bilinguals” in his recent book, “Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard UP, 2010).

  3. Professor Grosjean,
    How do you suggest a parent work with while protecting her children from the strong pressures to conform to making English dominant in one’s head in the context of the U.S. and Japan? U.S. bilingualism is short lived. Japanese bilingualism is even shorter. I have never understood in this particular way until reading your article. I feel blessed to have run into your writing, as it is about something I have struggled with all my life.

    I was born as a youngest of three to Japanese parents and moved to Singapore and was put in the British school system for 4 years. Then 1/2 year of Japanese school which I loved in Singapore. At 8 when we returned, I was placed in a public school and I refused to speak English all together, and at age 14 I left Japan for boarding school in the U.S and lost all Japanese contexts without my family around. First was a struggle adjusting to the American accent. But now I can pass for being a native in the U.S. or in Japan. This as a working adult, I have found to be quite rare. I know many envy without knowing any of my internal battles.

    I am having now my own simultaneous bilingual experiment with my children 4.5 and 2.5. My kid’s dominant language is currently Japanese largely due to time spent with our current aupair from Japan. The battle I mention here when it comes to my own children, I see now as something fixed in my mind as something to spare them from experiencing if I can help it. If this is not realistic, I would like their internal battle to remain one that is shared by members of our family. Perhaps the acquisition of languages does not come without cost but I have found from experience that children learn another language only out of pure necessity. Within the two contexts I belonged to, there was virtually no benefit to knowing both languages at any given moment. The fact that I had experience in both just meant that I was incomplete in both context. I felt too unique to be understood. I was too lonely and my brain seemed split. I blamed my English ability and differences that I inevitably possessed in the Japanese context as all I wanted was to belong in my home culture. But then as years passed in one culture, the question was then… where is my home?

    It’s like one’s own brain is a battle field of one imperialistic culture striving for dominance over the other. On top of what you mention here about U.S. tendencies, the particular tendency in Japanese culture to demand its people to conform to ones context has made Japanese/English bilingualism even shorter lived than most other languages in the U.S. in my opinion. I remember when I used to agonize over the decision of what language to use at a given moment when I chose to write in my diary. My loyalty seemed always in question. I imagine what a biracial/bicultural child might feel for loyalty, having to choose between parents if there wasn’t unquestionable language/cultural dominance already. What language do you choose to think in? Which culture do you choose for your context, your friends? And why? If you don’t spend time in it, you don’t know what you are missing, and what you will be going to miss. Perhaps I would have been happier had I chosen a life of an academic, but I was not focused enough, drawn away to art, music and kept my interests dispersed to other non lingual things to find any relief from this battle. Still, I like people. I like to communicate in language. I want my kids to be people who like and want to communicate to others. I want them to feel they belong. In order to protect my kids from at least half the misery I experienced as a child, I have come to the idea of schooling them at home. I want them to have a mind that is less lonely, less unique, shared, understood and ‘dominated’ by the context of a supportive family. I am curious to know what you think of all this.


  4. Please insert paragraph change in my earlier post as the writing is long winded and hard to read otherwise. Thank you.

  5. Hi Akari,

    I know Dr. Grosjean is traveling at the moment so I don’t think he will get back to you soon. May I suggest that you submit your query to our InCultureParent language expert, Professor Gupta- she is an expert in child bilingualism:


    If you like I can submit this to her and we would publish your question with her response.



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