In his new book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, Francois Grosjean, a scholar and the son of an English mother and French father, tries to debunk a number of myths about bilingual people. His goal, he writes, is to “demystify who bilinguals are.” For the purposes of this blog, let’s take on only two of the myths mentioned in the book, that bilinguals are born translators and that they code-switch—move back and forth between languages, sometimes in mid-sentence—as a matter of laziness.
One reason that a bilingual person may not be a good translator, Grosjean writes, is because he or she may not know the vocabulary and set expressions used for a particular subject. (That’s one reason it’s not a good idea for educators to expect children to translate for their parents on academic matters or for doctors to rely on them to translate information for their parents about medical conditions.) Grosjean, who is bilingual in French and English, explains that he has difficulty translating statistical terms from English to French because he simply doesn’t have that vocabulary. Some bilinguals find it both “difficult and tiring” to be interpreters and consider the fact that they are often asked to fill that role an inconvenience of being bilingual.
As for code-switching, bilinguals have a lot of reasons to move back and forth between languages, one of them being, says Grosjean, certain notions or concepts are simply better expressed in one language rather than the other.
The book also explores a few myths that are familiar to educators of English-language learners, such as that a language spoken in the home will have a negative effect on the acquisition of the school language. That simply isn’t true.
The book is expected to be published by Harvard University Press next April (with a sale price of $25.95). The publishing house sent me the galleys, which I very much enjoyed skimming. The subject of bilingualism is fascinating to someone like me who on a daily basis hears people code-switching all around me when I ride a public bus to and from work.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.