Bilinguals Have a Nimbler Mind. Really?

My unexpected summer trip to France was marked by infinite sadness. The sudden loss of my father – he didn’t show any sign of illness – is brutal, and I often wake up thinking that I have dreamed everything.

In these moments I am aware that all of my thoughts rush to my mind in French. Although much less frequently than when I was new in the States, the expression of my deepest emotions tends to come to me in French.

As soon as my children were old enough to realize that, unless most of their friends, we spoke two languages at home, they kept asking me if I thought in French or in English and if I translated in my head before I said something in English.

As for me, I knew that English was their real first language when they glared at me with big round eyes the day I told them that depending of my dreams I dreamed in either language.

Years later, after a longer stay in France, my oldest daughter bragged that she had also dreamed in French while staying at her grandparents’.  Her siblings looked up at her and would try hard to also dream in French when they visited.

Switching from French to English is my way of life, and I have regularly written about the benefits and challenges that offer such a life.

A great deal of my memoir  – still reviewed by an editor as I write – tells of this linguistic adventure. I know that I spend more time than a native speaker to write a good sentence. But I also enjoy the constant flip-flopping of my mind. Year after year, I know that I become a better bilingual, if such thing exists.

Until I became fluent in English, only a French poem could bring tears to my eyes. Now a beautifully crafted sentence in English has the exact same effect.

My four children equally loved Le Petit Prince, which I never read in English. My youngest daughter considers the book one of her very favorite. Last year, as we were reading it together, I noticed how emotionally she responded at the sound of some words and sentences. None of my children masters French like French natives. But the way they react today at the reading of the books I shared with them when they were younger is the proof that the acquisition of languages should be done as early as possible.

Accidentally, I found an article on the subject in the last Time magazine. Interestingly Le Petit Prince was also cited.

When I mentioned the article to my husband he said in a casual yet slightly awkward tone of voice, “Um, talking of being bilingual, I think you’ve misspelled a word in your last post in French.”

I felt myself blushing. After all, I’m the one who got a degree in French studies. Not my husband.

Unfortunately he was right.

Actually I had made three mistakes in a very short post. Embarrassing.

But I have two valid excuses:

1-     I wrote about the recent death of JJ Cale, a musician I adored when I was a student. So I was emotional.

2-     The article said that bilingualism starts at birth. I was much older when I moved to the States.


Oh the article also said that regardless of age bilinguals have a nimbler mind.


But I still like that fact.

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