Bilingualism in Childhood

What are the reasons for parents to raise their child bilingual?

Project Report, 2009

23 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of content


1. What is bilingualism
1.1. Definition of bilingualism
1.2. Types of bilingualism
1.2.1. Simultaneous bilingualism
1.2.2. Successive bilingualism

2. Raising a bilingual child
2.1. Methods
2.1.1. One Person One Language (OPOL)
2.1.2. Minority Language at Home (ML@H)
2.1.3. Artificial bilingualism
2.2. Advantages and Disadvantages
2.2.1. Mixing and code-switching
2.2.2. Language delay
2.2.3. Interference
2.2.4. Semilingualism

3. Explanation of research
3.1. Data collection
3.2. The questionnaire

4. Analysis
4.1. Analysis of questionnaires
4.2. Reasons for parents


Literature List

Appendix A Graphs of Evaluation

Appendix B Questionnaire


A lot of people in the world are bilingual. People in Africa and Asia often speak their community language and additionally an official language like English or French. It is not a big surprise when calling in mind that according to Prof. Dr. Martin Haspelmath of the Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie, Leipzig there are about 6500-7000 languages in the world and according to 193 countries. That makes an average of 35 languages per country.

Despite the fact that bilingualism is widespread, there are a lot of negative opinions in the mind of people. People say for example “Your kid is going to get all these languages mixed up.”, “when will she (or he) use that (language)” (both cf. Bosemark, 2006b, my italics) or that bilingual children are overstrained and that they start later to talk than their monolingual peers (cf. Leist-Villis, 2008).

Within this research-paper I will deal with bilingualism in childhood. More precisely I will answer the research question “What are the reasons for parents to raise their child bilingually”. First I will define the term bilingualism. For that I quote a few definitions of bilingualism from experts and afterwards I will define the one I will work with. Afterwards I will introduce some successful methods applied by parents and I will point out the advantages and disadvantages of the methods I found in literature. I will continue explaining the research I have done on the topic followed by the analysis of my data. Concluding I will answer the research question and give a prospective view on possible future research.

Bilingualism is a huge topic and to look on it more deeply I decided to consider families who raised their children English-German or German-English. To get in contact with families bringing up their children in that way, I wrote articles in internet communities and designed a questionnaire that I sent to several families raising their child/ren bilingually who answered my requests. In addition to the internet and my questionnaire I considered books that deal with the topic.

1. Bilingualism

Almost everybody knows the term bilingualism, but what exactly is bilingualism? In this chapter I will quote some definitions from researchers and conclude with the definition I will work with in my project. It is here to mention that there are two terms of bilingualism to consider. First term is the bilingual society which normally refers to countries like Switzerland and Canada where a whole community is bilingual. The second term to consider is bilingual individuals. Those are persons that are bilingually, normally living in a monolingual society. In my paper I will only consider the “phenomenon” of bilingual individuals.

1.1. Definitions of bilingualism

Almost everybody in Germany learns a second language in his or her life. But is that bilingualism? When I asked a friend of mine what bilingualism is, she answered “Being able to speak two languages on a native-like level”. This is almost the definition that Leonard Bloomfield gave in 1933; he said: “Bilingualism [is] native-like control of two languages ... Of course, one cannot define a degree of perfection at which a good foreign speaker becomes bilingual: the distinction is relative.” (in Harding-Esch, Riley, 2003: 23). Or consider F. Grosjean’s (1992) definition: “The bilingual is not the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals; rather, he or she has a unique and specific linguistic configuration.” (in Harding-Esch, Riley, 2003: 23). The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (2003: 136) defines bilingualism as being “able to speak two languages equally well (...)”. But is it possible to talk two languages equally well? Some bilinguals have a very good general terminology in English whereas their institutional German is much better as they study or work in Germany but speaking English at home. It is obvious that the term bilingualism is extensive. Anja Leist-Villis wrote that bilingualism means to live, think, feel and talk in and with both languages... The languages of bilinguals are rarely developed equally. Mostly one language is stronger than the other. That depends on: the age, the language arrangement in the family, the country where the person lives, his or her social environment and so forth. It is possible that one language is stronger developed in emotions and at the same time is the other language more developed in rationality (cf. Leist-Villis, 2008: 40) Bilingualism is a hard to define term and everybody has to define his or her own meaning of bilingualism. For this paper I will refer to bilinguals a people who grew up with two languages either from birth or a little later (around age three).

1.2. Types of bilingualism

In literature there are four types of bilingualism mentioned: infancy bilingualism, childhood bilingualism, adolescence bilingualism and adulthood bilingualism. For simplification I will remain with the first two terms. Adolescence bilingualism is referred to people who learn a second language after puberty and will not fit in the contxt of childhood bilingualism.

1.2.1. Simultaneous bilingualism

Simultaneous means “at the same time”. Parents who decide to speak to their child in both languages from birth onwards raise their child simultaneous bilingual. Infant bilingualism is the state when babies go “directly from not speaking at all to speaking two languages. That is, cases of infant bilingualism necessarily involve the simultaneous acquisition of both languages.” (Harding-Esch, 2003: 42). To be successful in this method, the parents have to be fluent in both languages and they have to use the two languages when speaking to the child without compromise. This can be specially challenging when talking as a mother a minority language with the children. I will illustrate this later in chapter 2.1.1 when talking about the One-Person-One-Language approach.

1.2.2. Successive bilingualism

In this type of bilingualism parents decide to establish first a basis of knowledge in the first language (L1) in their child. The child is then able to communicate in one language before they start educating their child in the second language. The second language (L2) is usually introduced when the child is three years old. At this time the child shows a good linguistic development. It is able to build up four-word-utterances, and can produce isolated consonants. “The most common cause of successive acquisition is the family’s moving to another country (...) this includes learning the language. (...) experience has shown time and time again that children in this situation will learn a second language with amazing rapidity if they are exposed to it.” (Harding-Esch, 2003: 44). Another reason can be that the parents, living in their home country, later decide that it would be advantageous to the child to know more than one language and sent it to a monolingual foreign kindergarten or bilingual kindergarten where the child gets in contact with the second language.

2. Raising a bilingual child

2.1. Methods

When parents decide to raise a bilingual child they have to consider the method they can apply. It will depend on the ability of speaking the partners’ language which method parents choose. In this chapter I will explain 3 often used methods of raising children bilingually.

2.1.1. One-Person-One-Language (OPOL)

Maurice Grammont, a French linguist, introduced the term une personne; une langue[1] 1902 in his book Observations sur le langage des enfants [2]. The idea behind his term is “that by strictly separating the two languages from the beginning the child would subsequently learn both languages easily without too much confusion or mixing of languages.” (Barron-Hauwaert 2004, 1). OPOL is usually applied by parents who have two different native languages. They start talking consistently to their child in their native language from the child’s birth. “The speaker establishes contact with the appropriate listener before (the child’s) beginning to speak” (Cunningham-Andersson, Andersson 1999, 31, my italics). The child will then be able to connect one language with one parent (e.g. English with the father and German with the mother). This will later help the child to distinguish the two vocabulary and grammar systems it is acquiring.

The advantage of a constant reference person can become challenging for the parent. When, for example, the mother is speaking the minority language with the child she has to do it in all circumstances when the child is with her. For example in the supermarket or when friends are visiting her. Talking in a foreign language to a child in public can be accompanied with shame by the mother or disrespect by people in the community. The person speaking the minority language to the child has to be aware of such occurrences and has to build a high sense of self-assurence.

2.1.2. Minority Language at Home (ML@H)

Considering the fact that both parents speak the minority language as a native language or they are both non-native speakers of the majority language. The Minority Language at Home method is most applicable. In this method both parents speak the minority language at home and the majority language is spoken in the community. The child gets in the majority of cases exposed to the community language the first time when it goes to a playgroup, in kindergarten, to the playground or in pre-school, thus when it comes in contact with the community. When the family has more than one child it can occur that the children speak the majority language at home to each other although the parents speak the minority language to the children and to each other and the children talk in the minority language to the parents. That is nothing disturbing as “the relationship between siblings is private and [has] really nothing to do with the parents.” (Cunningham-Andersson, Andersson 1999, 39). Christina Bosemark writes in her Article: “It is probably the most reliable method for raising truly native speaking children” (Bosemark 2006)

2.1.3. Artificial bilingualism

If none of the parents has a different native language or they do not live in a foreign country but they want their child to grow up bilingually, artificial bilingualism is a method to apply. To raise a child artificial bilingually there are different ways to do so. One is to employ a nanny or an au pair that speaks the preferred language. Another method is that relatives and friends (e.g grandparents) with another native language talk to the child. It is also possible for the parents to talk in a language that is not their native to the child if they feel competent and comfortable enough to do so. This can be done either with the OPOL or the ML@H method. Another way to build an artificial bilingual environment is to send the child to a kindergarten or school were the preferred native language is spoken. In most major cities there are international schools and kindergartens. In some areas schools and kindergartens support minority languages like German (in the German-Danish boarder region) or Danish (in Danish-German boarder region). Some schools require that the child already speaks the language others provide immersion education for those who do not know the new language yet.

2.2. Disadvantages and Advantages

In this section I will point out some disadvantages but also advantages that accompany bilingual growing up. It is here to mention that not all disadvantages that I will list here are disadvantages for everybody. Some seem to be a disadvantage but emerge to be not as negative as assumed.

2.2.1. Mixing and code-switching

The two terms differ in the subject of age of a child. Mixing refers to children between two or three years of age and code-switching refers to older children (cf. Barron-Hauwaert 2004).

In mixing the child replaces one word. This happens because the child does not know a particular word in one language.

Hanna speaks English and German, is about 2.5 years old and said one evening to her mum: ”Ich cover michself up.” (Tracy 1996, in Triarchi-Herrmann 2006, 42)

In this example one can see that Hanna does not know the correct pronoun ‘myself’ and mixes the English pronoun ‘myself’ with the German pronoun ‘mich’.

In code-switching the child switches for a single word, a phrase or even for one or more sentences from one language to another.

A five-year old English-German child said in a family talk: “Mum, I bet you’re finished, und Bert, wenn du fertig bist , and when you are finished, Frankie, then I’ll still have some juice left” (Saunders 1982, 49 in Triarchi-Herrmann 2006, 40)


[1] one person; one language (my own translation)

[2] Observation of the language of a child (my own translation)

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Bilingualism in Childhood
What are the reasons for parents to raise their child bilingual?
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Bilingualism, Childhood, Bilingualismus, Zweisprachigkeit, Zweisprachigkeit in der Kindheit, Bilingual
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Andrea Sander (Author), 2009, Bilingualism in Childhood, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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