The art of doubletalk

What does it mean to be an active bilingual?

Graham Elliott

What does it mean to be an active bilingual? Is it analogous to using an internal switch at will to reset the syntactic-semantic default to another ordained channel? Is it more mundane? François Grosjean, Professor Emeritus of psycholinguistics at the University of Neuchâtel, and author of several books on bilingualism, has been wrestling with these questions all his life.

Born in dimmed, forlorn post-war Paris to a British mother and a French air-force pilot, the infant François lived in foster homes and then an anglophone boarding school in Aiglon, Switzerland, after the break-up of his parents’ short-lived marriage. Sallie and Roger’s wartime romance began at the Free French Club in London in 1943. The former, a stage manager, fell in love with the escapee from Vichy France who dreamed of flying as a fighter pilot, but whose Security Service debriefers saw in him a potential agent in the Double Cross system. Codenamed Fido, his role in Operation Fortitude was to convince the Germans through smuggled-out letters that an allied landing would take place in the Pas de Calais and not in Normandy.    

Biggles and Enid Blyton stories helped to prepare the young François for life as a boarder at Ratcliffe College where he soon settled in: “I was a frog, a representative of a nation that had given in to Germany.” Following his A-levels, his estranged mother (now a racehorse breeder in Italy after a spell as a Jacques Griffe model) ceased to fund his education. His father (now an authority on Corsican archaeology) agreed to support François on condition that he returned to Paris. He did, and enrolled at the Sorbonne to study English and French.  Although he appeared French, bore a suitable name and was proficient in the language, François was without the cultural knowledge that his peers expected of him: the settlement of the pieds noirs post-Algeria, the top football team of that year, TV personalities. In time, once again, he adapted and remained in the city. His eye-witness account of Paris in May 1968 is unsensationalist and insightful.

He took his doctorate in speech production and reception. His research showed inter alia that, contrary to generally accepted belief, the global rate of spoken English and French is the same (francophones do not speak faster than anglophones, apparemment). What differs is that French has fewer silent pauses than English, but they are longer. Vowel-ended French pauses also tend to become drawls.

Time spent as a lecturer and researcher in the US required a re-engagement with English, as well as a new acculturation: the space between people standing in a queue, the weather and dress code, people’s reluctance to discuss politics outside the family. Efforts to maintain his young sons’ French were to no avail in America, where the two boys avidly learned English through play, school and TV. Indeed, Grosjean reports that his offspring’s enthusiasm for their new world helped his and his wife’s own acculturation. A sabbatical in francophone Switzerland required acceptance of a greater degree of social order than in France or the US: telephone etiquette, social transactions, restrictions on gardening (never on a Sunday).

The author believes “the bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person”. Rather, active bilingualism is usually a balancing act with one language cohabiting with, and eventually becoming dominant over, the other, depending on location/language domain and time, but not so that it rubs out the other completely. In practical terms, most bilinguals do not develop equal proficiency in both languages. Similarly, a bilingual will have strengths and weaknesses in one language likely mirrored in the other. The domains of home, work, social activities and travel—and the acquired language behaviour inherent to each of them—determine which language is used. Another analogy is that of hurdling: the hurdler is neither an outright sprinter, nor a (high or long) jumper; both skills are harnessed to create a new outcome for the immediate task. When the need for a language fades over time, monolingualism re-asserts itself. Biculturalism follows the language acquisition. It is a learning process, getting the small things right in situ, rather than an end state: knowing what to say, to whom and when; erring on the side of caution; getting involved in what others do. When in Rome . . . 

Grosjean’s bilingualism and biculturalism result from lengthy immersion in the target language and cultures. As with most bilinguals, professional interpreters included, it is a matter of covering the hard yards in the language and culture. Science can provide sketches of the neural networks that enable bilingualism, but such explanations are not covered in this account.

Autobiography, family history and career account in one, this book educates and entertains. Grosjean writes engagingly and authoritatively, using little jargon. His is an interesting journey, driven, as George Steiner might have said, by family upheaval and career quests from French to English and back again and back again. And it left me hoping that we might one day read a full account of his parents’ lives.


A Journey in Languages and Cultures:
The Life of a Bicultural Bilingual
By François Grosjean
Oxford, 224pp, £25.00


Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"