De Nayr Ibrahim

04 septembre 2012 - 16:45

Being bilingual image

British Council

It is the end of August and many families are making their way home after their annual summer holidays.  Besides relaxing in the countryside or suntanning at the seaside, they have caught up with family, friends and mother tongues. Bilinguals reactivate their childhood language(s), which are relegated to second language status or ‘home’ language in an adopted homeland. Tucked away in a corner of the mind, these languages are taken out at mealtimes or for long-distance calls, but they are never forgotten.  They are reluctantly spoken by the offspring who probably prefer the language of the country; besides, when replying in this language, they adorn it with words and expressions from the dominant language, creating a colourful rainbow of intermingling, code-switching and language mixing.

When the family goes ‘back’ home, it is suddenly plunged into a monolingual world.  A greater effort is required to exclude that interfering dominant language so as to produce utterances that grandma can understand: sentences are structured differently, verbs may have to be conjugated, vocabulary is carefully differentiated and pronunciation is readjusted for word stress or vowel sounds. Input is linguistically and culturally rich and intense, and the ground is fertile for a growth spurt of the minority language and culture.

Even though one month is a very short period, it is enough to keep the flame burning. It is an excellent opportunity for minority language speakers and bilingual children to beef up their weaker language, as the context (place and family) make it necessary to switch from bilingual to monolingual mode.  According to Grosjean (2008), language mode “concerns the level of activation of two languages, one of which is the base language”, depending on contextual factors.  At work in France, I function mostly in bilingual mode as I work with bilingual French/English speakers and very often use both languages i.e. English being my base language with French words and expressions. In my multilingual home, I switch to trilingual mode as we bring French and Portuguese into the equation.  In Portugal, I focus exclusively on Portuguese with my monolingual family.

In Portuguese monolingual mode, I rediscover the accent, the lilting intonation of the north, the specific words that characterize my parents’ village, current affairs terminology, the rise of the latest rock group or the lyrics of a melancholic fado, the idiomatic expressions and jokes that typify a world view and a cultural perspective, and my other self.  I revel in this opportunity, buying Portuguese magazines, watching Portuguese television, listening to the poetry of Portuguese music, reading the latest Portuguese bestseller and discussing educational reforms with my Portuguese cousin/teacher.

Bilinguals do enjoy switching back to bi/multilingual mode, as their expressiveness is liberated. Yet, they feel invigorated by the discipline of functioning exclusively in one language, exploring the narrow pathways of one particular way of being, of articulating the world, of reliving familiarity.

Grosjean, F. 2008. Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford Linguistics

Photo of Dr Nayr Ibrahim, Head of Young Learners at the British Council in Paris

Nayr Ibrahim

Nayr était jusqu'à récemment la Directrice de l’enseignement des enfants et adolescents et de la section bilingue au British Council. Elle a aussi travaillé au Portugal, en Egypte et à Hong Kong. Son intérêt pour le bilinguisme s’est éveillé grâce à son travail avec les élèves bilingues. Elle a écrit plusieurs articles et blog sur le bilinguisme. Elle est doctorante en bilinguisme à l'Université de Reading.