Two Languages, One Voice: Fred Genesee



It is 3:30 pm on a Wednesday. I am sitting on my balcony watching the hustle and bustle below. There is a group of young kids, possibly no more than thirteen, stomping and laughing their way down the sloped street of Cote-Des-Neiges. They're yelling, and I can hear them-- but I can only understand half of it.

These children are, like a substantial number of young Montrealers, totally bilingual. They switch between languages with an ease that I'm sure I couldn't acquire with years of studying French. It's likely that some of them, if not most, have been bilingual from birth. They have, as Montreal-based bilingual researcher Fred Genesee would say, two first languages.

The Man

7442249-thumb-544x400-5183.jpgFred Genesee, a professor at McGill University since 1978, studies bilingualism in children. He is not a professor in any department dealing with language--Genesee teaches Psychology. The link might not be immediately obvious, but Genesee's writings on bilingualism reflect a viewpoint based in Psychology far more than any language art.

Respected around the world as a foremost expert in bilingualism, Genesee has lectured in places such as America, Japan, Spain, Czechoslovakia, and Australia as well as Canada. He has written countless articles on childhood language acquisition, and has published numerous books on the subject. One of Genesee's most prominent ideas is that of Bilingual First Language Acquisition, and his views have changes the way many parents see educating their child.

Quebec provides Genesee a rich opportunity for hands-on research. In 1965, in the town of St. Lambert, Quebec, a group of parents pioneered a total French immersion school system for their children. The experiment went on to be the basis of immersion programs all over Canada. The history of the program in Quebec, along with the high rate of bilingualism in Montreal, has been the inspiration behind a number of Genesee's studies.

The Myth

One of Fred Genesee's major points in his writings are what he calls the four unfounded myths about bilingual children:

  1. The myth of the monolingual brain is based on the idea that the brain is coded to function naturally with only one language, and bilingual children suffer developmental disadvantages because of the extra strain.
  2. Time-on-task focuses on the idea that bilingual children, with their divided attentions between two languages, will not gain language competence.
  3. The third myth concerns learning impaired children for whom one language is already a struggle. The assumption is that two languages will be an unnecessary burden.
  4. With the last myth, that of minority language children, the need for competence in a majority language (such as English) leads people to believe that children must learn only that language as early as possible.

The Reality

In actual fact, none of these myths hold up to the research Genesee has done:

  1. The idea of the monolingual brain, says Genesee, is false; learning two languages is just as natural for a child as one.
  2. Time-on-task is also a flawed assumption. Genesee says that his research proves that it is the quality of the language, not the quantity, that makes competent bilingual speakers.
  3. For learning impaired children, Genesee says that learning two languages provides no more of a burden than one. Their learning is delayed equally in both languages, and the delays are equal to that of learning impaired monolingual children, not more.
  4. Genesee's last myth, that of minority language children, is complex. His research, however, mostly proves this myth false; it is, in many ways, beneficial for a child to know both a minority and majority language, for a variety of reasons.

Beyond the myths of disadvantaged bilingual children is the reality that to learn two first languages promotes, Genesee has written, "national unity, cross-cultural understanding, and employment opportunities".

The City

Genesee's work on bilingualism has given him unique insight into the use of language in Montreal. Along with the high rate of bilingualism from birth, there are children who begin to learn a second language when they start school and many adults who pick up a second language when they join the workforce. Bilingualism permeates Montreal's culture.

In an interview about the rate of bilingualism in Montreal, Genesee said that schools where Anglophone children were surrounded by native French speakers are expected to be "quite good". His research into how children acquire language has led him to advocate total immersion--not just in school, but in all aspects of life.

However, as children go forward in life, bilingual language skills do not always translate to integration in Montreal's community. Genesee has criticized the French community in regards to their acceptance of bilingual Anglophones, saying that a "lot of people are very bilingual, but they're not being hired and not being accepted. To resolve that one the French community has to look at itself long and hard, frankly."

I come from a part of Canada that is nearly overwhelmingly monolingual. The bilingual climate of Montreal is breathtaking and complex to my Anglophone senses. Fred Genesee's writings and observations are extremely important to me as an outsider, to parents and educators, and the bilingual community as a whole.


very interesting, informative and relevant!

That is very interesting. Who knew!!!

Very relevant and informative from both ends of the spectrum. As someone who should be trilingual or bilingual - I can both agree and disagree with his 'Realities' and is inspired to know more on the subject.

It's really amazing how fluid some people are when it comes to language. I'm always impressed when some of my coworkers casually drop in and out of English or French when speaking, as if it were nothing.

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