What Does it Mean to be Bilingual?

Friday, April 23, 2010

It's estimated that nearly half the world's population live their lives speaking two or more languages, but author François Grosjean believes many myths about bilingualism still persist. Are all bilinguals part of two cultures? Can you only become bilingual as a child? He takes a closer look at these questions and more from his new book, Bilingual: Life and Reality.

Comments [25]

gaetano catelli from Greenpernt, Crooklyn

the biggest myth of all is that "myths" aren't true.

Apr. 25 2010 04:25 PM
a g from hudson co.

let us be honest,a big part of the anti-bilingualism in our country is anti-spanish speaking. a lot of americans don't harbour the same ill will towards other tongues.

Apr. 24 2010 01:03 AM
Eugenia Renskoff from Williamsburgh, Brooklyn

Hello, Brian, I am fully bilingual in Spanish and English. When I speak Argentinean Spanish I am in a different culture. It is a rich culture that most Americans know very little about. When I speak English, everything is different. I have to use different words and phrases in each language in order to be fully understood. The more I learn about the world, the more I realize that, in my case, some of the myths that your guest was talking about do in fact exist in me. Eugenia Renskoff

Apr. 23 2010 01:47 PM
Regina from manhattan


would anyone care to share their opinion on what is the best way to learn a foreign language without living in that country?

I'm in my early 30s, I work in an english speaking only environment, and don't have tons of cash to spend... trying to learn spanish.

Apr. 23 2010 12:48 PM
heather from Brooklyn, NY

my father is american and hearing while my mother is a deaf chinese immigrant. my brother and i grew up speaking english, american/chinese/"home" sign language and we completely identify with being bi cultural, specifically as CODA (children of deaf adults). i think your guest made a broad generalization when it comes to language retention in children vs. adults. my father did not start learning sign language until he was in his twenties when he met my mother. after thirty happy years of marriage, he is the first to admit he is not fluent in sign, however my brother and I who have lived away from home and away from the deaf community for years now still retain our bi bilingualism and we credit it to learning it from birth.

Apr. 23 2010 11:18 AM
Dborah from Westchester, NY

Professor Grosjean,

I'd love to know the research on dreaming in a second or other language. I've learned five, for reasons of love or necessity, and it's happened a few times that I'll have a dream in the new language that is way beyond my waking capability in it. I wake up happy, amazed and a bit frustrated.

I'd also like to know if others experience a kind of wall of frustration that ultimately gives way to a higher level of learning.

Apr. 23 2010 11:07 AM
ALR, ESL prof from Jersey

Funny--just yesterday I gave my students topic options for a debate: one was that all Americans should be required to learn a second language in order to remain citizens! An extreme stand, of course, and it wasn't selected for the debate.

My personal experience was that I studied French for 4 years in school before starting to take Spanish as well. The earlier language-learning experience made Spanish really easier for me. But it wasn't until I studied in Spain that all of that background learning clicked into place, and I became fluent. It's hard to think that anyone can do it without living in the country (the "need-to-speak" that the guest mentioned), but I know that there are lots of people who can do it. I'm not one of them.

Apr. 23 2010 11:06 AM
Ryan from Barcelona, SPAIN

I'm a US "expat" living in Barcelona, Spain ... a bi-lingual / bi-cultural city (Catalan/Catalonia in a Spanish country)
My 5-1/2 year-old son is tri-lingual (Catalan, Spanish, English) and oddly understands all of the english that I speak to him (I speak to him almost solely in english) however he choses what appears to be the "comfort" of talking with me in Catalan. He in turn, will speak to my family in english. He speaks to his mother in Catalan (which he is schooled in). I speak to her in Spanish and to our children in English. He knows that I have the ability to speak and understand Catalan ... and oftentimes I struggle with the fact that I'm forced (by him) to "TRANSLATE" in my head all of his conversation with me (from Catalan to English), while his responses are innate ... they are automatic and no translation is needed ... it's obvious in his speed in resonding to me (albeit in Catalan) when I speak to him in English...

Apr. 23 2010 11:00 AM
Matt from UWS

I just got back from Israel where my sister & her husband and three kids live. They live in a town that has a lot of "Anglos" (American or British expats) which provides a wonderful linguistic laboratory.
Unfortunately, their experience doesn't match the professor's. Many of the kids growing up in Hebrew with English-speaking parents do experience language delays. So much so that the town provides special "language" kindergartens where the kids can receive speech therapy.

Apr. 23 2010 11:00 AM
Libby from manhattan

Great discussion. Americans need more language. I proud to say one set of my godchildren speak english/spanish/italian because of their parents. And another set (who are more or less african american, although their grandmother is chinese) speak english/cantonese/mandarin. This is the future generation

Apr. 23 2010 10:59 AM

How can one try to avoid the translation in your head that occurs in formal learning? I am trying to learn Spanish, and I can't help but think in English all the time. My fiance grew up speaking Spanglish (therefore a native Spanish and English speaker) and it seems like his brain works in an entirely different way from mine.

Apr. 23 2010 10:57 AM

I'm all for being bi-lingual but I have read that truly bi-lingual people have smaller vocabularies in both languages than their monolingual peers. Is this true?

Apr. 23 2010 10:57 AM

While no one would suggest that you can't become FLUENT in a second language as an older child or adult, your guest should to acknowledge that there is a HUGE difference between the native language acquisition (acquisition--no 'learning' required!) and second language learning (learning required!) simultaneous bilingual acquisition of 2 languages is different than becoming bilingual as an adult or older child.

Apr. 23 2010 10:56 AM
IC from NY/Montreal

My son grew up tri-lingual. At 15 he is completely fluent in 3 languages spoken at home, Mandarin, French & English and have attended 2 bi-lingual schools in all 3 languages. He has absolutely no problems thinking and living tri-lingual and tri-culturally contrary to uni-lingual and some bi-lingual speakers. Being multi-lingual has helped him accerlerate his learning in all facets of life. It was so clearly reflected with most of his schoolmates who were all spoke at least 3, if not 4 or 5 languages, and not of the same language root.

Apr. 23 2010 10:55 AM
Kevin from Brooklyn

My retirement age father is learning Spanish. Now he watches Sesame Street in Spanish regularly.

Apr. 23 2010 10:55 AM
john from queens

my parents, from another country, tell me that they did not teach me the old language because they thought at the time that you could only master one language. that is clearly not true today and I think I missed out on half my culture since I can only speak "American".

has that only-master-one theory ever been commonly believed ?

Apr. 23 2010 10:51 AM
The Truth from Becky

Bilingualism is great! Everyone should speak a second language.

Apr. 23 2010 10:51 AM
Jon from NYC

The #1 myth that needs to go is the notion that the language(s) you know is the equivalent of The Queen's Proper English.

Tied for 2nd place are that when I switch languages, it's because I want to cut someone out of the conversation; and that just because two people who share a common language are somehow obligated to talk to one another in that languages.

3rd? No, I won't translate for you on demand.

Apr. 23 2010 10:51 AM
Daniel Rodriguez from Brooklyn

One of the main myths about bilingualism, especially for immigrant parents of my parents' generation, is that in teaching your child a second language, you will be hindering their English language development. My mother was often told NOT to speak to me in Spanish because they feared that when I got to school I would have problems understanding.

Apr. 23 2010 10:50 AM
Chris from Manhattan

Is the U.S. growing more bilingual because native-born Americans are learning other languages, or because non-natives are immigrating and learning English?

Apr. 23 2010 10:49 AM
Chris from Manhattan

Is the U.S. growing more bilingualism because native-born Americans are learning other languages, or because non-natives are immigrating and learning English?

Apr. 23 2010 10:48 AM
Jay F.

Is French still the official "Diplomatic" language?

Apr. 23 2010 10:48 AM

What about Sign Language? Does your guest consider "bilingual" to include one spoken language and one in Sign?

Apr. 23 2010 10:20 AM
Fatima Sfiligoi from Brooklyn

I would like to know how important it is all the effort put into learning the second language during the first 5 or 6 years of a child. From the little I read in the book it looks like it could be totally forgotten so it may not be an incentive for people to make the effort to keep the second language alive. We are trying hard anyway! We even recorded a CD of children's songs in Spanish to make the learning process of our children even more fun!! And we are now performing in NYC!! Our website is

Apr. 23 2010 09:21 AM

Bilingual is great! Starting a critical sentence with "Well, in MY country" while going to school or working in America, stinks.

I bring it up to highlight the tricky relationship between, and unspoken conversations around, bilingualism between parent and child. Guest, do you assert that this type of thinking is just a myth?

Apr. 23 2010 08:55 AM

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