Biculturalism: An Interview with Professor François Grosjean

  • August 2, 2010
  • François Grosjean

François Grosjean, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

François Grosjean is Emeritus Professor of Psycholinguistics, Neuchâtel University, Switzerland. His specialty is psycholinguistics and his domains of interest are the perception, comprehension and production of language, be it speech or sign language, in monolinguals and bilinguals. He also has interests in biculturalism, applied linguistics, aphasia, sign language, and natural language processing. He is better known for his work on bilingualism in which he has investigated the holistic view of bilingualism, language mode, the complementarity principle, the processing of code-switching and borrowing, as well as the bilingualism of the Deaf. He is the author of numerous articles and of five books, the latest of which is Bilingual: Life and Reality (Harvard University Press, 2010).  Dr. Grosjean currently maintains a blog entitled, “Life as a Bilingual.”

Greetings! My name is Nate Cornish. I am a bilingual speech-language pathologist, the clinical director for Bilingual Therapies and moderator of the ¡Adelante! blog. It is my pleasure to introduce as well as to participate in this month’s article, which will be presented in a different format than we are accustomed to. I had the opportunity to engage our contributor, renowned psycholinguist Dr. François Grosjean, in an interview on biculturalism. Our discussion was based on a chapter of his book, “Studying Bilinguals” (Oxford University Press, 2008). Chapter Twelve, titled, “The Bicultural Person: A Short Introduction,” raises some interesting points that are pertinent to our work with culturally and linguistically diverse individuals. Clearly, language and culture are closely linked. However, we as communication professionals may not always consider the dynamic of biculturalism as readily as we consider bilingualism, even though its impact on our clients’ participation in academics and life may be just as profound.

In Dr. Grosjean’s book, he acknowledges that most people are simultaneous members of multiple cultural groups. The “minor” cultures that a person may identify with (occupation, family, hobbies, etc.) are often complementary and coexist within a “major” culture (national, linguistic, social, religious, etc.). While an individual may belong to a number of minor cultures, aspects of major cultures are frequently mutually-exclusive. Thus, navigating, and identifying with, more than one major culture may require some effort.

While the bicultural person may be characterized by a number of traits, there are three in particular that Grosjean focuses on:

  1. Bicultural individuals take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures
  2. They adapt, at least in part, their attitudes, behaviors, values, language, etc., to these cultures.
  3. They combine and blend aspects of their cultures.

These traits bear some similarities to the characteristic cross-linguistic skills and needs of bilinguals with at least one important difference: Grosjean states that “Bilinguals can usually deactivate one language and use the other in particular situations… whereas biculturals cannot always deactivate certain traits of their other culture in a monocultural environment.” In other words, there appear to be some aspects of culture that are “adaptable and controllable” while other features are more “static,” meaning that they are “always present and cannot be easily adapted.”

One of the significant points Dr. Grosjean makes is in regards to identity and biculturalism. Grosjean observes that the bicultural individual may experience conflict unless she accepts her identity as a bicultural person with an experience that is distinct to that of monocultural persons. Particularly problematic are external and internal perceptions that an individual cannot successfully be a member of multiple cultures. For example: an individual may be judged to belong to only one culture despite a clear need to navigate two. This is particularly problematic if members of Culture A perceive that the individual belongs exclusively to Culture B, while members of Culture B perceive that the individual belongs solely to Culture A. In such circumstances, Grosjean posits that the bicultural person may make one of the following decisions regarding their identity:

  1. They may identify solely with Culture A
  2. They may identify solely with Culture B
  3. They may reject both cultures
  4. They may accept themselves as a bicultural individual with the need to operate in two or more constituent cultures.

Dr. Grosjean states that the process of finding one’s identity as a bicultural person may be long and even arduous. Continued conflict may exist when identifying exclusively with only one culture, or rejecting both cultures. Those who choose these solutions may feel “uprooted, marginalized, or ambivalent.” However, those who can “come to terms with their biculturalism”, and recognize that they do indeed belong to two cultures, have a stronger likelihood of navigating their two cultures with ease.

With that summary, I would like to share the content of my enlightening (and enjoyable) conversation with Dr. Grosjean:

In an article that you wrote on the topic of bilingualism, (Grosjean, 1989) you state that a bilingual is not the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals, but rather a distinct and competent communicator. How would you liken (or differentiate) that view to the bicultural individual?

I believe this view also applies to the bicultural person, perhaps even more so. As already mentioned, biculturals take part, to varying degrees, in the life of two or more cultures; they adapt, at least in part, their attitudes, behavior, values, and languages to their cultures; and they combine and blend aspects of the cultures involved. The first two characteristics are similar to those that describe bilinguals. As we all know, bilinguals live within two of more language communities and they adapt their language to each group. This said, bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one person, and similarly, biculturals are not two monoculturals in one person. This is particularly clear when one examines the third trait that characterizes biculturals – combining and blending aspects of the cultures involved.

But don’t bilinguals also “mix” their languages?

True, bilinguals also combine their languages in the form of code-switches and borrowings (when in a bilingual language mode) but they do not normally blend their languages the way biculturals blend their cultures. Not all behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes can be modified according to the cultural situation the bicultural person is in. A bicultural who has roots in both the French culture and the American culture, for example, blends aspects of each culture and may find that she cannot be 100 percent French in France and 100 percent American in the United States, however hard she tries.

This form of static cultural interference is a differentiating factor between bilingualism and biculturalism: bilinguals can usually deactivate one language and only use the other in particular situations (at least to a very great extent), whereas biculturals cannot always deactivate certain traits of their other culture when in a monocultural environment.

How does a speech-language practitioner determine these cross-cultural traits (or blends)? What questions should they ask?

It is only by getting to know the client very well that these cultural blends will become apparent. Biculturals themselves often cannot identity them for others unless they have undertaken quite an extensive introspection. Cultural blends can be found in greeting and leaving behaviors, hand gestures and facial expressions, the amount of space that is left between oneself and others, etc. but also in less visible domains such as what you talk about, your attitudes, your beliefs and so on.

Can you say something about biculturals and the monocultural – bicultural continuum they operate along?

Biculturals may find themselves at various points along a situational continuum that requires different types of behavior depending on the situation they are in. At one end they are in a monocultural mode, since they are with monoculturals or with biculturals with whom they share only one culture. In this situation they must deactivate as best they can their other cultures. They attempt to apply the motto, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” If their knowledge of the culture in question is sufficient, and they manage to deactivate, at least to a large degree, their other cultures, then they can behave appropriately. However, because of the blending component in biculturalism, certain behaviors, attitudes, and feelings may not be totally adapted to a situation and may instead be a mixture of the person’s two (or more) cultures.

At the other end of the continuum they are with other biculturals who share their cultures. With them, they will use a base culture to interact in (the behaviors, attitudes, beliefs of one culture) and bring in the other culture, in the form of cultural switches and borrowings, when they choose to.

In what ways does biculturalism affect language use and need?

As is now well established, bilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Different aspects of life often require different languages. I have called this the complementarity principle and I discuss it extensively in my recent book, Bilingual: Life and Reality. The cultures that characterize biculturals will often impact differently on language need, fluency and use. If a language is spoken in a reduced number of cultural domains and with a limited number of people of a specific culture (these biculturals are dominant in the other culture), then it will not be developed as much as a language used in more domains and with more people. More specifically, if a cultural domain is not covered by a language, bilinguals will simply not possess the domain-specific vocabulary, the stylistic variety, or even sometimes the discursive and pragmatic rules needed for that domain.

I recall a conversation that I had with one of my bicultural colleagues about her experiences as a Mexican-American child growing up in the United States. I was intrigued by a statement that she made while discussing the rules that she had to abide by, which were very different than those of her Anglo-American friends. She said, “Nobody tells you it’s a cultural difference. You’re just frustrated with your parents.” What does the process look like as biculturals become aware of differences and then become aware that the differences are cultural rather than individual?

This is a fascinating issue which has not been studied very much. The best data we have currently can be found in autobiographies of immigrants who have written about how they grew up in a minority family and then discovered and entered the mainstream culture. Writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, Eva Hoffman, Olivier Todd and Paul Preston, among many others, evoke their awakening and adaptation to biculturalism.

What can you say about self-identity and biculturalism?

An important aspect of biculturalism relates to the identity bicultural people decide to take on. Their dilemma is that monocultural members of their different cultures want to know if they are members of culture A or culture B, or of a new culture, when biculturals just want to be accepted for who they are: members of two or more cultures. How does the identity process take place? First, biculturals have to take into account the way members of the cultures they belong to categorize them. These members will take into account their kinship, the languages they speak and how well they do so, their physical appearance, their nationality, their education, their attitudes, and so on. The outcome, in each culture they belong to, will often be categorical: biculturals are judged by friends, acquaintances, and others to belong to culture A or to culture B, but rarely to both cultures. An additional problem can be that culture A may categorize them as members of culture B and vice versa, a form of double, contradictory, categorization.

Faced with such sometimes contradictory perceptions, biculturals then have to reach a decision regarding their own cultural identity. They take into account how they are seen by the cultures they belong to, as well as such other factors as their personal history, their identity needs, their knowledge of the languages and cultures involved, the country they live in, the groups they belong to. The outcome, after a long and sometimes trying process, is to identify solely with culture A, solely with culture B, with neither culture A nor culture B, or with both culture A and culture B.

Many of us have observed biculturals struggling with this process.

Yes, and that is because the first three solutions—that is, only A, only B, neither A nor B—are often unsatisfactory in the long run, even if they might be temporary answers. They do not truly reflect the bicultural person who has roots in two cultures, and they may have negative consequences later on. Those who choose to identify with just one culture (whether freely or when pushed to do so) are basically turning away from one of their two cultures, and they may later become dissatisfied with their decision. As for those who reject both cultures, they often feel marginalized or ambivalent about their life.

As for the fourth route, and being able to say, “I am bicultural, a member of culture A and of culture B”, it may require a lot of energy and time. And yet, this is the optimal solution since biculturals live their lives within two cultures, combining and blending aspects of each one, even when one culture is dominant. Some biculturals are helped by the existence of new cultural groups, such as the immigrant groups in North America. Identifying with Cuban Americans, or Haitian Americans, for example, and being able to use those labels, is a fine way of telling others that you are of dual heritage, Cuban and American or Haitian and American, and that you wish to be recognized as a bicultural individual.

Why is it important for professionals to be mindful of the cross-cultural dynamics of their speech and language-impaired clients?

Even though professionals are concentrating on the speech, language and communication of their clients, it is important that they view them holistically as bilingual bicultural people. Most bilinguals in the United States are also bicultural (recall that in other countries, the two do not always go together) and hence they must be mindful of both aspects. Certain language behaviors such as the reserved, or outgoing, nature of their clients, the amount of speech that is produced, the subjects that are talked about (or not talked about), even their voice amplitude, may find their roots in the specific cultures present in these people.

What role can a speech-language professional or other concerned parties play to help the bicultural individual establish a healthy cultural self-identity?

A first step is to obtain a clear understanding of what it means to be bicultural. In addition, recognizing the assets of being bicultural is needed. Bicultural people are invaluable in today’s world—they are bridges between the cultures they belong to, useful go-betweens who can explain one culture to members of the other and act as intermediaries between the two. Professionals can also accompany, and sometimes help bilingual and bicultural children and adolescents on their journey which will lead, hopefully, to their acceptance of their dual identity.

I end my recent book in the following way, “Caring and informed adults must accompany them – many already do – and ease their passage from one stage to the next. I dream of the moment when these young people and, later, adults will all be proud of their languages and cultures, and be accepted for who they are—bilingual and bicultural individuals, quite simply.”

Thank you Dr. Grosjean, for your important work in the area of biculturalism and for sharing this information with our readers!

Further readings by François Grosjean:

– Grosjean, François.  “What Bilingualism is Not.”  Weblog.  Harvard University Press Publicity. 29 July 2010.  Harvard University Press.  4 August, 2010.

– Bilingual: Life and Reality (most notably Chapter 10, “Bilinguals who are also bicultural”).
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

– “The bicultural person: A short introduction”. Chapter 12 of Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

– “The bilingualism and biculturalism of the Deaf”. Chapter 13 of Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

– Grosjean, F. (1989) Neurolinguists, beware!  The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person.  Brain and Language 36, 3-15.

François Grosjean’s website:

Recent Posts

Together, let’s create brighter futures for culturally diverse students.