Bilingualism and translation

While I was researching a paper I’m writing on the motivations of those who participate in community translation projects, I came across an interesting book on bilingualism:
Bilingual: Life and Reality, by François Grosjean.

At the moment, I’m preparing a survey for people who have participated in any crowdsourced translation project, and I was looking for a resource that could help me word the questions about language proficiency. Grosjean’s book did the trick, although not quite as I expected. It’s a very accessible introduction to bilingualism, and although it didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know about issues that include how people become bilingual, why they have accents, why code-switching occurs, and whether bilinguals are also bicultural, it did remind me of all the aspects of bilingualism that I need to keep in mind when I ask survey respondents who were involved in a crowdsourced translation initiative how often they use the languages that were part of the initiative.

Bilingual: Life and Reality is divided into two parts: the first focuses on bilingual adults, and the second, on bilingual children. As I mentioned earlier, it is a very accessible book, targeted at a general readership: “those who are interested in bilingualism or involved, in one way or another, with bilinguals” (2010: xv). Thus, it is sprinkled with anecdotes about bilinguals (such as the ones about his baker’s wife, who serves customers in both French and Swiss German, or the comments by bilingual authors like Nancy Huston), and it indicates the references to scholarly works in endnotes rather than footnotes or in-text citations. It also explains in considerable detail terms like code-switching and borrowing, which readers who are unfamiliar with linguistics might not know very much about.

Of particular interest to me (since I am trying to reflect on what it means to be bilingual and to word my survey questions about language proficiency) is Grosjean’s definition of bilinguals as “those who use two or more languages (dialects) in their everyday lives” (2010: 4) and his debunking of a series of myths about bilinguals, namely that bilingualism is rare (2010: 13-17), that bilinguals are equally proficient in all of their languages (20-35), that being bilingual automatically makes one a good translator (36-38), that bilinguals code-switch because they are lazy (rather than because certain concepts are better expressed in another language or because someone wants to identify with a certain group, show expertise, etc.) (52-62), that bilinguals have no accent in their various languages (77-81), that real bilinguals acquire their languages as children (90), that being bilingual means also being bicultural (108-112), that bilinguals seem to have a different personality for each language they speak (121-125) and that bilinguals always express their emotions in their mother tongues rather than their less dominant languages (129-133). Grosjean does argue against some prevalent myths about bilingual children as well (e.g. that bilingualism will delay a child’s language acquisition and that bilingualism negatively affects a child’s development), but these sections were less relevant to my research, and so I didn’t spend much time reading them.

I can see the point of adopting a wide-ranging definition of bilingualism like the one Grosjean proposes rather than a definition that excludes those who do not master two or more languages equally well; as he argues, if we use “bilingual” to refer to only the small group of people who master two or more languages so skillfully that they could pass for a native speaker of each one, what term could we use to refer to the larger group of people who speak two or more languages on a regular basis but are not completely fluent in all of them?

Now I just have to sit down and transform these details about bilingualism into succinct survey questions designed for respondents who might not have any formal training in translation or linguistics and who therefore might not be familiar with some of its terminology. I want to see how often respondents regularly use the source and target languages of a community translation initiative, how often they translate(d) into their most proficient language (which may not be their mother tongues), and how comfortable they feel writing in the target language. My next step is to check out language-related questions from surveys conducted by the Canadian and US governments as well as the European Commission.

Grosjean, François. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Grosjean’s blog also discusses some of the issues that are raised in Bilingual: Life and Reality.