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Sign language and
bilingualism of the Deaf
Bilingualism in Switzerland
Myths about bilingualism
What bilingualism is NOT
What parents want to know about bilingualism
The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual
The man behind the book
Meeting François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality
Questions asked by Corey Heller, Multilingual Living, Seattle, USA [April 2011]
Professor Grosjean, people know of your work and your defense of bi- / multilingualism, and yet we know very little about you. Thank you for accepting to tell us a bit about yourself.
It is my pleasure.
1. Here is a first question: People have problems situating you; are you French, English, Swiss?
A bit of all those; you can add a bit American too as we lived in the United States for twelve years back in the 70s and 80s. I was born in France to a French father and an English mother. Then at age eight I was put into an English boarding school in Switzerland before being sent to a school in England. I then did my college studies in France, and started working there before coming to the USA. Finally, in 1986, my family and I settled in Switzerland.
2. Does having so many roots worry you in any way?
On the contrary, I am proud of being a mosaic of four cultures, and much of my writing has been influenced by who I am and where I have lived. As you know, I am a strong proponent of telling people that we are X and Y and Z instead of saying that we are neither X nor Y nor Z. In today's world, there are more and more people who have varied origins and who are proud of them. This said, it took me some time to start thinking this way and that is why I defend the early positive nurturing of languages and cultures in children.
3. Your personal experience with bi- / multilingualism definitely comes through in your writing. Can you tell us about that?
It is true that the way my life has evolved has allowed me to see the many facets of bilingualism. I became bilingual successively, that is I spoke French first and then acquired English at age eight. So I know what it feels like to start as a monolingual and then to become bilingual. I have also experienced changes in language dominance several times during my life and know what that means too. In addition, I started acquiring another language as an adult (American Sign Language), although never very well, and hence I have lived through the first steps of late language learning. Finally, I have lost a language, Italian, which I knew quite well when I was an adolescent. The only thing missing is early simultaneous bilingualism! All these aspects, as well as observing and helping my own children become bilingual, have helped me internalize first hand the many facets of bilingualism and biculturalism.
4. In your book you have a whole chapter on family strategies and support. It this because your own parents played a large role in how you became bilingual?
I'm afraid that my parents separated when I was very young and so I spent my early years with a foster mother in a little village outside Paris. I was then put into a boarding school. I only saw my parents, separately, during my vacations and I can't recall that either of them helped me adapt to my new cultures (Swiss, English) or to my new language (English). I wish they had as sometimes I had real difficulties both linguistically and culturally.
5. Did you do things differently when you had your own family?
Yes, with my wife, Lysiane, we had a totally different approach. When we arrived in Switzerland with our two sons for the first time and they started learning French (we had been an English-speaking family until then), we spent a lot of time with both boys helping them with their French and talking to them about the way people do things differently in Switzerland and in the USA, their first country. We also developed various strategies to keep both their languages alive, and we helped them with their third language, German. It was a way of putting into practice the kind of support I had dreamed of having as a child and as a teenager.
6. And do you think you succeeded?
Well, you'll have to ask my sons really, but let me at least tell you that one is now an active trilingual in English, French and German and the other is quintilingual (the same three languages as well as Swiss German and Spanish).
7. You have proposed some innovative ways of considering bilinguals such as the fact that the bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person. When did you start thinking that way?
As I was growing up, I quickly realized that a handful of other boarders and I shared the fact that we spoke several languages and had roots in several cultures. Then, when I moved back to France after a ten-year absence, I was very conscious of going through a real, and sometimes difficult, adaptation period. As my linguistic and cultural configuration was changing, it dawned on me that I remained the same person throughout - a human communicator - but that I was different from monolinguals, both linguistically and culturally. It is only many years later that I put all of this into words.
8. When you fleshed out this view and started writing about it, was it hard to get it accepted?
My colleagues in the bilingualism research field have been very welcoming to this particular idea. There is more resistance, though, in the world outside academia where stereotypes still exist concerning the "real" or "true" bilingual. That was one of the reasons I wrote my recent book - to present some of the myths that surround bilingualism and to explain why they are wrong.
9. You have been a defender of bilingualism in Deaf children also. Why is that?
It's a topic that has always been very close to my heart. It all started in Boston in 1974 when I started working on the psycholinguistics of sign language. I was simply enthralled by the beauty of that language and by the history of Deaf people. But the real trigger for this "push" for bilingualism came the following year in Washington DC when I heard that a young Deaf adult has been robbed during the Word Congress of the Deaf. He had been brought up solely with the oral (speech) method and had not gone very far with it. In essence, he could not speak or write. And, of course, he didn't know how to sign as sign language was forbidden in schools for the Deaf. So he was without a language and could only mime what had happened to him. Several years later I wrote my "The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual" thinking of this young man.
10. A few years ago, you had a major change in your life. How are things now?
Back in 2003 I developed an inflammatory disease which led to a heart attack a year later. I had been very active until then running a research laboratory, coordinating and editing an academic journal, teaching, doing research, etc. and it was a wake-up call that told me that I should slow down a bit. This is what I have done and things have stabilized now. I do miss teaching though as I had taught continuously for forty years and never missed a single class (except when I had my heart attack!). However, I make up for it by having a blog where I can continue to tell people about the aspects of bilingualism that fascinate me.
11. You have achieved many things in your career spanning several decades. What still pleases you the most?
I love it when bilinguals come up to me (or write to me) and tell me that they have read something I have written and that it speaks to them or motivates them. Of all the perks that an academic can have, that's the one that I prefer!
Thank you very much for this interview, Professor Grosjean. We are delighted to have had this opportunity to get to know you better.
You are very welcome. It has been my pleasure.
> Francois Grosjean's website
> His Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual
Université de Neuchâtel, Ave. du Premier-Mars 26, 2000 Neuchâtel, Suisse/Switzerland