A couple of days ago, I overheard my daughter speaking in English while she was playing by herself with her My Little Pony collection. I made it a point to observe her a bit more intently – without her knowledge, of course – just to make sure she wasn’t just saying a few words in English, as she’s done in the past.

I don’t know why it surprised me, but the whole time the ponies were speaking English to each other, saying things like: “I need help! Somebody please help me!” (I’ve no idea what game she was playing). I made sure to listen for a while to see if Spanish would sip into the equation, but after about 10 minutes, it hadn’t.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised because, even though I’ve tried to keep up with our bilingual playgroup, ever since I went back to work full time, it’s been really difficult.  This means that she spends the majority of her playing time at preschool with her little monolingual (English) friends. And this got me thinking about a really interesting topic that one of my favorite bilingualism experts, Prof. Francois Grosjean, has written about extensively. Language usage for bilinguals highly depends on the domains of their lives (the life areas) they are involved in at any given time.

In other words, in my own life, in certain specific situations I use only Spanish (with the nanny, my children, and the part of  my family who is monolingual back home in Peru), in others I use only English (at work, at my daughter’s preschool, when I go shopping, when I read instructions), and in some domains I use both languages (with my husband, my mom, my siblings and some of my bilingual friends, and when I write.)

Grosjean calls this the complimentary principle. This is from his latest book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, which I highly recommend because, if you’re bilingual, you’ll immediately see yourself in it.

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.”

So why does this even matter? Well, because the complimentary principle affects, among other things, fluency in each of our languages.

For example, I’ve always, always prayed in Spanish and, even though I consider myself bilingual, I have a hard time following a religious service in English because I learned my religion’s prayers in Spanish! It’s not so much that I can’t do it, it has more to do with feeling weird and out of place.

Here’s another personal example, back in the days when I worked in television production – and even though I worked at Univision – all the technical terminology I learned and used was in English. So, whenever I’m talking to my husband (who still in the business) about this topic, we use English. I just simply don’t have the vocabulary for this area of my life in Spanish.

Does this mean I’m not really bilingual or less of a bilingual? Not at all! According to the complimentary principle, this is exactly the way it’s supposed to be for bilinguals. It’s very rare for all domains of our lives to be covered by all our languages.

More from Grosjean’s book:

It is precisely because the need for and uses of their languages are usually quite different that bilinguals do not develop equal and total fluency in all their languages.”

Something to definitely keep in mind when it comes to raising bilingual children, ¿no creen?

Now you see why it really should’ve come as no surprise that my daughter plays in English. This is the language she uses the most in that domain of her life. I guess it’s time to go figure out a way to go back to our bilingual playgroup!

How about your kids? In which areas of their lives do they use each of their languages? And, you?

{Image by  Guilherme Jófili }

Recent Posts