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Francois Grosjean

Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England



One day, I was sitting at an outdoor cafe and over­

heard three people talking about what it means to be bilingual. I
pricked up my ears but resisted the temptation to interrupt, even
though they were talking about my pet subject. One of them in­
sisted that being bilingual meant being totally fluent in two lan­
guages; another agreed and added that the bilingual person also
had to have grown up with both languages. The third person was
less assertive and mentioned simply the regular use of two lan­
guages. “After all,” she asked, “someone might know two languages
fluently but almost never use one of them; does that make him bi-
hngu^? What about the person who doesn’t know the two lan­
guages to the same level but who uses them regularly? Isn’t she bi­
lingual?” I sipped my coffee quietly at the next table and promised
myself that in my next book on bilingualism I would write a chap­
ter on this very issue.

Below, in addition to examining the criteria of fluency and use,
we will look at some other factors that help characterize bilinguals,
such as which languages they use and what they use them for, what
their language history is, their proficiency in the various linguistic
skills, the language modes they navigate in, and whether they are
also bicultural.


describing bilinguals

Language Fluency or Language Use?

A number of years ago, I asked some monolingual college students
what they understood me to mean when I told them that person X
was bilingual in English and French. The top answer (from 36 per­
cent of the students) was that it meant X speaks both languages
fluently. When asked to rate the importance of fluency on a i to 5
scale, where i was not important and 5 very important, they gave
“fluent in two languages” a high mean rating of 4-7-

The notion that being bilingual means being fluent m your lan-
gviages is widespread. The bilingual writer Nancy Huston, who is
Canadian but has lived in France for many years, has given mUch
thought to her dual language and cultural status and has written
about it. I will mention her views in several parts of this book. For

Huston, true bilinguals are those who learn to master
euages in early childhood and who can move back and forth be­
tween them smoothly and effortlessly.^ Even some linguists have
put forward fluency as the defining characteristic of biUnguals. The
American Unguist Leonard Bloomfield; for example, wrote that bi-
linguaUsm was the native-like control of two languages.^ Several
decades later, the lecturer and diplomatic interpreter Christophe

Thiery set the bar very high when he wrote,

A true bilingual is someone who is taken to be one of
themselves by the members of two different linguistic
communities, at roughly the same social and cultural

He reported that the “true” bilinguals he studied had learned their
languages in their youth (before age fourteen), had spoken both
languages at home, had gone back and forth between the two lan­
guage communities, and had been taught in both their languages.



In addition, they had no accent in either language, they were equally
fluent in all the skills of their two languages, and they did not let
one language interfere with the other when speaking to monolin-

A major aim of this book will be to show that the majority of
bilinguals simply do not resemble these rare individuals. While a
few may, such as interpreters and translators (and we will turn to
them in the chapter on “special bilinguals”), most bilinguals are
simply not like that. They may not have acquired their languages in
childhood, spoken their languages in the home, or lived in two-
language communities. Many have not been schooled in all their
languages, many have an accent in one of their languages, and
more often than not one language does interfere with the other. If
one were to count as bilingual only those who can pass as monolin-

^guals in each language, one would have no label for the vast major­
ity of people who use two or more languages regularly but do not
have native-like fluency in each. According to the fluency definition,
they are not bilingual, and yet they are not monolingual either, be-

A cause they live their lives with more than one language.
The monolingual view of bilingualism that one still finds in the

general public (but much less often among specialists in bilingual­
ism) has led to a common misapprehension:

Myth: Bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages.

Some add that bilinguals must have acquired their languages as
children, and some others bring in the idea that they should not
have an accent in any of them. These are the “real,” the “pure,”
the “balanced,” the “perfect” bilinguals. All the others (in fact, the
majority of people who use two or more languages in their ev­
eryday life) are viewed as “not really” or “less” bilingual. One conse-



quence of this is that the language skills of bilinguals have almost
always been appraised in terms of monolingual standards. The
effects of bilingualism have been closely scrutinized, and bilinguals
themselves rarely evaluate their language competencies ade­
quate. They have a tendency to assume and amplify the monolin­
gual view of bilingualism and thus criticize their own bilingualism.
They complain that they don’t speak one of their languages well,
that they have an accent, that they mix their languages, and so on.
Many do not want to be labeled biUngual, and some even hide their

knowledge of their weaker language.
All this is unfortunate, as it does not take into account the real­

ity, which we will discuss in more depth in the next chapter, that
most bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in dif­
ferent situations, with different people. They simply do not need to
be equally competent in all their languages. The level of fluency
they attain in a language (more specifically, in a language skill) will
depend on their need for that language and will be domain specific.
Hence, many bilinguals are dominant in one language, some do
not know how to read and write one of their languages, and others
have only passive knowledge of a language. Perhaps a sprinkling of
bilinguals may have equal and perfect fluency in their languages, al­
though Einar Haugen-one of the fathers of bilingualism research,
whom I had the honor of knowing-did not believe this was truly

possible. He wrote:

Is it possible to keep the patterns of two (or more) lan­
guages absolutely pure, so that a bilingual in effect be­
comes two monolinguals, each speaking one language
perfectly but also perfectly understanding the other and
able to reproduce in one the meaning of the other with-



out at any point violating the usage of either language?
On the face of it one is inclined to say no. Hypothetically
it is possible just as a perfectly straight line or perfect
beauty or perfect bliss are theoretically possible, but in
practice it is necessary to settle for less.’*

Because defining bilinguals in terms oflanguage fluency is prob­
lematic, many researchers have opted for language use as the defin­
ing criterion, and little by little an increasing number of bilinguals
are adopting it when describing their own bilingualism. Uriel Wein-
reich and William Mackey, two important scholars who marked the
field of bilingualism in the second half of the last century, both
leaned in this direction. They defined bilingualism as the alternate
use of two (or more) languages.^ My own definition—bilinguals are
those-A’ho use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday
lives—is very similar and also puts the stress on language use.

The range of who can be considered bilingual increases consider­
ably when one concentrates on language use. At one end we find
the migrant worker who may speak with some difficulty the host
country’s language and who does not read and write it. At the other
end, we have the professional interpreter who is fully fluent in two
languages. In between, we find the scientist who reads and writes
articles in a second language but who rarely speaks it, the foreign-
born spouse who interacts with friends in his first language, the
member of a linguistic minority who uses the minority language
only at home and the majority language in all other domains of
life, the Deaf person who uses sign language with her friends but a
spoken language (often in its written form) with a hearing person,
and so on. Despite the great diversity among these people, they all
share a common feature; they lead their lives with two or more lan­



Language Fluency and Language Use

Despite the increasing emphasis put on language use when describ­
ing bilinguals, one cannot do away with the notion of fluency—that
is, which languages bilinguals know and the degree of proficiency
they have in them. I have developed a grid, shown m Figure 2.1, that

takes into account both factors.
Language use is presented along the grid’s vertical axis by a con­

tinuum (from “never” used to “daily” use), and language fluency is
presented along the horizontal axis (“low” fluency to “high flu­
ency). A bilingual’s languages can be placed on the grid according




Lb La



Low High,

Language fluency

Figure 2.1. Describing the bilingual in terms oflanguage use and lan­
guage fluency. The languages in this example are English (La), Spanish
(Lb), Italian (Lc), and French (Ld).



to the levels reached in each dimension. In the example given, I de­
pict the bilingualism of Ana, a second-year chemistry major at a
large midwestern university. Because of her background (her par­
ents emigrated from the Dominican Republic), the year she spent
abroad in Italy, and the languages she studied at school, she has
four languages; La (English), Lb (Spanish), Lc (Italian), and Ld
(French). She has high fluency in La (English) and medium fluency
in Lb (Spanish), both of which she uses daily. She has rather low
fluency in Lc (Italian), which she uses irregularly with an Italian
girlfriend she met in Italy (the friend knows three of Ana’s lan­
guages), and low fluency in Ld (French), which she never uses. (In­
terested readers might wish to fill in the grid with their own lan­
guages according to their use and fluency levels.)

The older definition of bilingualism puts the emphasis on high
language fluency (the right-hand part of the grid). Since our exam­
ple bilingual, Ana, has medium fluency in Lb, she might not have
been counted as a bilingual according to that view. The more recent
d^nirion of bilingualism puts the emphasis on regular language
use (top part of the grid); we see that Ana uses both La and Lb on a
daiiy basis and so can be considered bilingual. Whether Ana is tri­
lingual (in La, Lb, and Lc) depends on where the border is drawn on
the language-use continuum. At first glance, we could say that she
is bilingual in languages La and Lb and has some knowledge of Lc
and Ld. This pattern is common in today’s world: bilinguals may
use two or more languages on a regular basis and also have some
knowledge of one or more other languages.

In this book I will often address the issue of which languages a
bilingual knows, even if it is with a very low level of fluency, and
which languages he or she uses. I will do so by referring back to this



describing bilinguals

Making Things a Bit More Complex

Many other factors-in addition to traditional Biographic^ data
(age sex, socioeconomic status, occupation, and so on)-need to
ti’n into account when describing bilinguals. I will mention a few

here and take some of them up again in later chapters.
First, as indicated in Figure 2.1, we need to know which languages

bilinguals actually know and which they use. Many of us know se –
eral Signages to varying degrees (in my case, the number is fou )

but we use fewer than that on a regular basis (in my case the nu
ber is two). We also need to know what the relationship is between
Z language a person uses. This wiU help us understand the rndu-
ence that one language can have on the other (languages that are
closer to one another, for example, have a tendency to influence on

TmsS^ important to know whether some languages are sail be­

ing acquired (think of someone who has been in the United States
foLnly ayear and is still making progress in English)
ItL iLJlages are in the process of b«ng restructured, that tak ­

ing modihed due to the influence of a stronger language.
would be the c»e, for exanrple, with Hindi for a Htndl-Ftench bt-
Ungual in France who has very lirtle use of her Hrndr because sh

has been living abroad for ten years.
The language history of the bilingual is a third thing to keep m

mind Which languages (and language skills) were acquire , m
„hen> Were the Unguages acquired at the same time (someth g

that is relatively tare) or on. after the other? For
people acquire one language at home and then a second laijage
Ln they start school. And how were the languages acquired. In a
iTtural sluing or more formally (at school), or a combination of



both? How a language was acquired can have an impact on how
well one knows it, especially regarding reading and writing compe­
tence. We also need to know what the pattern of language use was
over the years. In sum, the age at which a language was acquired,
how it was acquired, and the amount of use it has been given over
the years has an impact on how well a language is known, how it is
processed, and even the way the brain stores and deals with it. We
will come back to this question in the chapter that deals with lan­
guages across the lifespan.

We also have to know about the bilingual’s proficiency (fluency)
in each of the four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) in
eafh language. (So far we have mentioned only a global measure of
fluency for each language.) A way of representing this, for a given
moment in time, is to use four of the grids presented in Figure
2.1, one for each skill, filling in each one according to the use of
the skill and the fluency in the skill. More complete proficiency
tests can then be administered, as well as self-assessment question-
g^aires.6 What one will find is that many bilinguals may not know
how to read and write a particular language, even though they
speak it and listen to it. In addition, their proficiency will rarely be
equal across languages, as we discussed above, and they might have
an accent in a language, a topic we will come back to in a later

Another important factor chat characterizes bilinguals concerns
the functions of their languages: which languages (and language
skills) they use, in what context, for what purpose, and to what ex­
tent. We know, for example, that with many bilinguals only one lan­
guage is used for certain specific domains (such as at work, for reli­
gious practices) whereas others may cross domains (as when several
languages are used with friends). In the next chapter we will exam­


describing bilinguals

ine the influence this has on language dominance as well as on

such behaviors as translation.
A full description of the bilingual also needs to take into account

language mode, which is the state of activation of the bilingual’s
languages, depending on such factors as situation, interlocutor,
and topic. In some situations, such as when speaking with mono-
linguals, only one language is active and being used. For instance,
when I am addressing a French audience, only my French is present
and I deactivate my other languages so that they do not intervene.
In other situations, however, such as when speaking to another bi­
lingual who shares the same languages, two or more languages can
be active and can interact in the conversation. For example, wh?n I
speak French to my wife, who is bilingual in French and English, I
may bring in words and sentences from English, depending on my
need for them, as I know she will understand me. In this situation
(called a bilingual mode), bilinguals can simply bring in the other
language for a word, a phrase. Or a sentence (through mechanisms
called code-switching and borrowing), or they can actually change
the language they are speaking (referred to as changing the base
language). I will spend three full chapters on such phenomena, as
they are central to bilingual communication.

A final factor to keep in mind is biculturalism: whether bilin­
guals interact with two or more cultures or whether they live their
lives within one culture. Not all bilinguals are also bicultural. For
example, a Moroccan who knows and uses Moroccan Arabic as well
as Modern Standard Arabic and who has lived all his life in Mo­
rocco is bilingual but not bicultural. Nevertheless many bilinguals,
such as first-generation immigrants, are. also bicultural, and this
plays a role in their bilingualism. We will discuss this in Chapter 10,

“Bilinguals Who Are Also Bicultural.”


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