What is Bilingualism? Effects of early and late bilingualism on the human brain

Seminar Paper, 2009

23 Pages, Grade: 1,00


Table of Contents

1. Bilingualism..
1.1 Introduction:

2. The Linguistic Approaches.
2.1 The Psycholinguistic Approach.
2.2 The Sociolinguistic Approach.

3. Early and late bilingualism..

4. Compact and coordinated bilingualism..

5. Semilingualism..

6. The bilingual Brain.
6.1 Representation of two languages in the human brain.

7. Conclusion.

8. Appendix.

1. Bilingualism

1.1 Introduction:

The question “what is bilingualism?” is not easy to answer. Even if we study the great canon of literature on bilingualism, it leads to the conclusion that there aren’t any common definitions to be found. Linguists have only agreed on the point that bilingualism refers to an individual that has language skills in two languages. However, linguists set the degree of bilingualism differently: on the one hand, rudimentary knowledge about a language seems enough, whereas on the other hand, in order to be regarded as a bilingual, a speaker is supposed to have sophisticated knowledge about both languages, similar to the language level of a monolingual (Baker, 2006, p. 15).

This statement forces a variety of further questions to arouse such as “what does it mean to be able to speak two languages? In how far do the languages have to be developed and sophisticated in order to call an individual a bilingual speaker? What kind of criteria have to be fulfilled?

As mentioned before, linguists are not in an agreement about the definition of the term bilingualism. The reason might be the great variety within the scope of science that deals with this very phenomenon of bilingualism. Besides the field of linguistics psychology, sociology and pedagogic are fields that show great interest in bilingualism as well. Psychology deals with the phenomenon of bilingualism concerning mental processes, sociology deals with cultural aspects in close contact with the society, and pedagogic is concerned with bilingualism occurring in school life, respectively in school and lesson planning.

Further, bilingualism or multilingualism is analyzed in all disciplines in two different levels; first, the individual level and the social level. Humans live in a society in which they communicate with each other, express their feelings, thoughts and attitudes. Humans are beings that think about their impressions of the world and clothe their thoughts in words. Yet, in order to realize communication humans need a medium of communication, which is the language. Consequently, language and individuals, but also individuals and society are not separable (Baker, 2006, p. 15).

In the course of this paper a definition of the term bilingualism will be attempted, whereas different points of views, e.g. the sociolinguistic and the psycholinguistic point of view, will be implemented. What is more, a closer look at the implementation of languages in the human brain will be analyzed, in order to understand why bilingualism as well as early bilingual teaching have a deep impact on children’s and student’s language development.

2. The Linguistic Approaches

2.1 The Psycholinguistic Approach

Within the frame of linguistic consideration of bilingualism, scientists have taken contradictory positions about when to regard an individual as bilingual. At the same time it is not definite, what level of language skills are required to regard an individual as bilingual (Baker, 2006, p. 16). In the space of this dispute, two extreme standpoints have evolved. For one thing, Blocher’s (1909) and Bloomfield’s (1933) maximalistic and ideal-typical views have evolved, which assume that a speaker can only be regarded as bilingual when he or she speaks both languages equally well (Blocher, 1909, p. 147; Bloomfield, 1933, p. 24). This means that the language skills of a bilingual in both languages have to be just as good as the language skills of monolingual in one language. Blocher and Bloomfield define bilingualism with characteristics such as “native-like control of two languages” (Blocher, 1909, p. 147; Bloomfield, 1933, p. 24).

Further, the linguistic and scientist Braun (1937) also regards bilingualism as a full control of two languages and speaks about an “active, complete equal mastery of two or more languages”. (Braun, 1937, p. 115)

Due to these definitions, linguists orientate themselves toward the position of two fully controlled languages. In addition, they describe bilingualism as “true bilingualism”, a “perfect bilingualism” and “ambilingualism” (Braun, 1937, p.115f).

Indeed, there are contradictory opinions like Hoffmanns (1991) who underlines that an identical quality in two or more languages is not achievable, because “true ambilingual speakers are very rare creatures”. (Hoffmann, 1991, p. 21f)

Further linguists like Haugen (1953) and MacNamara (1969) join this position and state that even minor language skills are sufficient to claim someone as bilingual (Haugen, 1953, p. 9f). Haugen explains further details and states that an individual is bilingual “at a point where a speaker can produce complete, meaningful utterances in the other language” (Haugen, 1953, p. 9f). MacNamara (1969) even goes the extra mile and claims every speaker as bilingual who has skills in one of the eloquences (speaking, writing, reading, understanding) (MacNamara, 1969, p. 83f).

I shall consider as bilingual a person who, for example, is an education native speaker of English and who can also read a little French. This means that bilingualism is being treated as a continuum, or rather a series of continua which vary among individuals along a variety of dimensions (MacNamara, 1969, p. 83).

MacNamara’s point of view is supported by Diebold (1964), who approves someone as bilingual, even if he or she has only a minimized understanding for the second language. At that point, understanding sentences of the second language, which is just starting out, seems enough for Diebold, even though if the speaker cannot produce own sentences yet. In this case there is the talk of a beginning bilingualism, which does not require grammatical knowledge and skills (Diebold, 1969, p. 498).

It becomes very clear that bilingualism has a contradictory definition among linguists; whereas, on the one hand barely anybody could be regarded as bilingual, it seems enough on the other hand to understand and speak a few words in a different language. The latter, therefore, claims that there are several, uncountable bilinguals in this world.

Judging from the ideal-typical theories, monolinguals are considered the unit of measurement in order to specify the degree of bilingualism. The skill defined by Bloomfield (1933) as “native-like control of two languages” is the starting point (Diebold, 1969, p. 498f).

Nevertheless, if the use of speech and speech behavior of bilinguals among each other is analyzed, it turns out that this theory is misleading, because bilinguals make use of language strategy called “code-switching”. Therefore, Riley (1987) claims that it makes more sense to make attempts to set a degree of bilingualism in a bilingual, instead of making hard efforts in drawing the line between bilinguals and monolinguals (Harding/ Riley, 1987, cited in: Mackey, 1987, p.31). In detail, because: “in other words, the problem is the defining degrees of bilingualism. Bilingualism in not black or white, all or nothing phenomenon; it is more or less one” (Harding/ Riley, 1987, cited in: Mackey, 1987, p.31). Mackey (19897) points out that you can use the four different eloquences, the two receptive (reading, listening) and the two productive ones (writing, speaking) of both languages, in order to set a scale for the degree of bilingualism. At the same time it is necessary to analyze different linguistic levels of the bilingual’s language skills, e.g. the phonological-graphic-stylistic, the grammatical, the lexical and the semantic level (Mackey, 1987, p. 557). In the frame of this very model, a bilingual speaker might have better skills in one of the shown levels than in another one in both languages. Mackey states this as a pretty normal development, since the majority of the bilinguals have less developed skills on the grammatical level for example, than on the lexical level. Mostly, he claims this fact with the explanation that the L2 is stronger in writing and reading than the L1, due to the high input and practice time in school. At the same time, these speakers tend to a weaker skill in the phonological area of the L2 than in the L1 (Mackey, 1987, p. 557). In addition, Mackey regards the skills on a semantic level as striking. In this frame, it seems perfect to take a closer look at the field of the situational use of language. It needs to be found out who speaks with whom what language and when. This is the question Fishman (1965) tried to give an answer to in his essay, which is also called “Who speaks what language with whom and when?”. By writing this essay, he absolutely hit the nail on its head of the sociolinguistic approach.

This theme is going to be regarded in the following chapter of “the sociolinguistic aspect” of bilingualism.

2.2 The Sociolinguistic Approach

The sociolinguistic approach deals with cultural aspects, in this case language, in close contact with the society. In first place, the sociolinguistic approach is about speech or language performance of a speaker and therefore focuses on the use of language in specific situations. The sentence by Fishman (1965) “Who speaks what language with whom and when?” forms the core of sociolinguistic studies. Firstly, it studies the multilingual society and secondly the bilingual individual. The first aspect is studied in order to find out what roles the languages play and how the language systems in the brain can be maintained. The latter urges to find out about the bilingual individual and its use of language strategies like code-switching (Albrecht, 2008, p. 59).

Mackey (1986) has studied intensively the use of language produced by bilinguals and came to the concluding definition that bilingualism is:

not a phenomenon of language: it is a characteristic of its use, It is not a feature of the code but of the message. It does not belong to the domain of the ‘language’ but of ‘parole’. […] We shall therefore consider bilingualism as the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual. (Mackey, 1986, p. 554f).

So, he speaks not of bilingualism as being a phenomenon, which underlies the domain of language, but of bilingualism as a use.

Appel and Muysken (1987) consider all those as bilingual who are able to use both languages and can make use of code-switching, because “switching is not an isolated phenomenon, but a central part of bilingual discourse”. At the same time though, they underline the fact that “it is by no means certain that code-switching has the same function within each community”. (Appel/Muysken, 1987, p. 120)

Edwards (2004), similar to MacNamara (1969), assumes that every human can speak at least a few single words in a different language and therefore, is for him worth being considered as bilingual (Edwards, 2004, p.7). Consequently, a very low degree of bilingual language skills seem enough.

Albrecht, 2006, deals with the term bilingualism like this:

the term bilingualism is used to describe people, in particular children, who are able to communicate in at least two languages. […] in this case daily, contact with more than one language and shows awareness for different linguistic settings […] bilinguals are not completely balanced but speakers have one dominant or preferred language. Dominance, however, is not static but can change. It is determined by various factors (Albrecht, 2006, p. 19ff.)

According to Albrecht (2006) bilinguals have to be exposed to both languages and communicate in both languages every day and also show “awareness for different linguistic settings” (Albrecht, 2006, p. 20). Further more, Albrecht states that bilinguals have a preferred language, which is not static but dynamic and therefore underlies modifications (p. 20).

None of these definitions have called neither the quality of the language production, nor the language skills into question. Instead, they emphasize that language production underlies certain situational and personal conditions, but however are subject to fluctuations and changes (Albrecht, 2006, p. 21).

On the one side, if bilinguals use one language less than the other one, it automatically leads to a simplified language performance. On the other side, it seems plausible as well that a reinforced use of one language will lead to a vastly better language performance.

At this very point the question in how far the native language can be influenced arises. Appel and Muysken (1987) refer to several factors of influence. Firstly, they adopt the economic status. This refers to minority groups with low economic status living in a foreign language society, and that they incline more to the target language of the country. Linguistic competences are associated with social and economic status, education and success. Consequently, parents, who can hardly speak the second language, encourage and guide their children to be settled entirely in that language (Appel/Muysken, 1987, p.33).


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What is Bilingualism? Effects of early and late bilingualism on the human brain
University of Kassel  (Fachbereich für Sprachwissenschaften)
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Sara Ekici (Author), 2009, What is Bilingualism? Effects of early and late bilingualism on the human brain, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/137841


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