Interview with François Grosjean, an expert on bilingualism
1. As a professor of psycholinguistics, what can you tell us about how many people it is estimated are bilingual in the world? Is bilingualism more common than we might think in places like the UK and US?
It is estimated by most researchers on bilingualism that probably more than half of the world’s population is bilingual; that is, it uses two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life. Unfortunately, there are no good statistics for the UK but if you consider that more than 300 languages are spoken in London itself, you can infer that many people are bilingual. As for the USA, some 20% of the population is bilingual, i.e. 55 million inhabitants.
2. When can a second language be most easily acquired in terms of age?
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. But 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.
3. We work with children who struggle with reading and spelling. Quite a few of them are bilingual. Could their bilingualism be a factor in their difficulties?
Unfortunately, it was believed for a long time that bilingualism was a cause of language problems. Recent research has shown that this is not true. On the contrary, bilingualism enhances many abilities such as problem solving as well as the capacity to analyze different aspects of language (a skill that is needed for reading and writing).
4. If a child is dyslexic, will he or she be able to learn a second language?
The answer is a resounding “Yes”! Recall that much of language learning takes place orally and hence puts less demands on the dyslexic child. In addition, if a child needs a second or a third language, he/she will develop it in the right conditions. Someone very close to me, who is dyslexic, is now quintilingual!
5. If you could advise parents of bilingual children who are struggling with learning to read and write in English, what would it be?
The main factor that leads to the acquisition and development of a language is the need for that language, e.g. to interact with others, to study or work, etc. If the need for a language is present, then language acquisition will usually take place. Other factors must also be present: enough language input and use; the help of family, friends, colleagues, and the community in general; formal language learning; and positive attitudes towards the language and culture in question, as well as towards bilingualism.
François Grosjean is Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland. His many publications on bilingualism include three books: Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism (1982), Studying Bilinguals (2008), and Bilingual: Life and Reality (2010). The latter was selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title. He is a Founding Editor of the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition and was its first Coordinating Editor. He writes a blog, “Life as a bilingual“, for Psychology today and has a website at: www.francoisgrosjean.ch