Early Bilingualism. Growing up with two languages

Term Paper, 2010

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Personal Experience

3. General Aspects
3.1. Definition of bilingualism
3.2 Early and late bilingualism
3.3 Types of child language acquisition
3.4 Two theses
3.5 Bilingual and monolingual first language acquisition compared

4. Bilingual Language Acquisition in children

5. Language characteristics in early bilingual speech
5.1 Code-switching
5.2 Mixing
5.3 Interference

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Researchers [and] educators used to think that learning two languages at one time […] had a negative impact on children's development and may even cause delays or other developmental problems. Today's newer research, conducted across the disciplines of education, psychology, speech and hearing sciences and neural processes now suggests otherwise saying that early bilingualism may in fact have positive consequences […]. (cf. Guo)

There are millions of children around the world who grow up bilingually or even multilingually. They need to know many different languages to be able to communicate with their parents, their teachers, with the people they buy their groceries from, or with officials who might all speak a different language. For those children, for their parents and the society that surrounds those it is more than normal to be multilingual. Over the past decades the topic of bilingualism has become more and more important in the western part of the world too. There are many families who start teaching their children two and more languages but it is also still a subject that is highly debated between scholars from all over the world. People are afraid that teaching two languages to a child might harm his or her development. They do not want to overburden their children or cause any severe damages. Therefore many parents and caretakers still decide for one language which they will teach to their child(ren).

This paper is going to analyse some aspects of the question how children become bilinguals and which difficulties might occur along the way while trying to prove that children are very well able to learn two and even more languages from birth. After starting out with a short personal introduction, the terms ‘bilingualism’, ‘early bilingualism’ and ‘late bilingualism’ are going to be defined. Afterwards types of child language acquisition are explained and two different theses on how children become bilingual are shortly looked at. It is going to be looked at some specialities in child language acquisition and different language characteristics of early bilingual speech are highlighted. In conclusion it is going to be looked at some possibilities to support children in their bilingual development.

2. Personal Experience

I got the chance to accompany two little girls, at the age of 13-26 month, on their way to become bilingual speakers of English and German. It was interesting to see how they started learning those two languages and how fast they knew which language to use with whom and in what surrounding. At first it seemed as if it took them a little bit longer than other children to start out speaking their first words but once they started they were unstoppable. The kids were raised in the ‘one parent – one language’ system and they never had any severe problems growing up bilingual till today. The parents and I always tried to make sure that both languages were used around the girls consistently. At home they always talked German to their father and me and English to their mum. They knew that they had to address their mum in English because pretty soon they realised that she did not understand them when addressed in German. When they talked to each other it appeared as if they always used the language of the caretaker who was around them at that moment. It got a little bit more difficult for them when we were in close contact with other children or adults who did not speak German, for example in the playground. The girls where used to talking to me in German and they always tried to do the same with the other people around them when I was with them. It took them some minutes to realise that the kids do not understand what they were talking about but once they did, they switched to the English word without any problem.

To sum up I have probably experienced what many other parents or caregivers experience with their children every day when they raise their children bilingually. I do not want to say that it was always easy to stick to one language myself, in order to not confuse the kids or that it was always easy for them to learn both languages and to find out which language they are supposed to use at what moment or in what surrounding, but in my opinion it will all be worthwhile in the end.

3. General Aspects

3.1. Definition of bilingualism

The term ‘bilingualism’ is very hard to describe and definitions differ a lot. Josiane F. Hamers and Michel H. A. Blanc cite the definition of the Webster Dictionary of 1961 which defines ‘bilingual’ “[…] as having or using two languages especially as spoken with the fluency characteristic of a native speaker [and as] a person using two languages especially habitually and with control like that of a native speaker […]” (1992: 6) Next to that definition there are many others, which only include people, who are able to speak, read, and write two languages perfectly. On the other hand side there are also scholars, like Macnamara, who support the thesis that a person only has to “[…] possess a minimal competence in one of the four language skills, i.e. listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing in a language other than his mother tongue” to be called a bilingual. (Hamers, Blanc 1992: 6) John Edwards even states in his book on Multilingualism that “Everyone is bilingual” (Edwards 1994: 55), assuming that there is no adult human being in the world who is not able to produce, read or understand even a few words in a language that is not his or her mother tongue. (cf. Edwards 1994: 55) These few examples show how differently people might define bilingualism, how many different dimensions there are and how difficult it might be to scale bilingualism. “A number of tests are commonly employed to measure bilingualism; these include rating scales and fluency, flexibility and dominance tests.” (cf. Edwards 1994: 57) When you want to test bilingualism with rating scales you are mostly dependant on people to rate themselves. In that case you have to trust them being able to report on things they are doing great in but also on things they are doing not so great in. In the end those scales are mostly always assailable by the accusation of subjectiveness and with children they are even harder to complete at all. The tests of fluency and flexibility appear more objective than the rating scales but there are still not good enough to rate bilingualism perfectly. (cf. Edwards 1994: 57) In conclusion one might say that every person can have his own definition of bilingualism and that they have to choose which scale they want to use in order to find out for themselves if a person is bilingual or not.

3.2 Early and late bilingualism

The terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ bilingualism refer to the time when a person acquires his or her second language. It is called early bilingualism when the language is acquired in between the time of birth and puberty. There you can also distinguish between ‘infant bilingualism’, until the age of three, and ‘child bilingualism’. After the age of puberty it may be called ‘adult bilingualism’ (cf. Hoffmann 1997: 18) Next to those names there are many others in use, depending on the scholar and his or her preference. Early bilinguals will mostly have acquired their second language naturally, in particular when we are speaking about a pre-school child. (cf. Hofmann 1997: 34) The term late bilingualism refers to people who have learned their second language during adulthood or in other words after the age of puberty. In that case it depends on the person’s situation whether his or her language acquisition happened naturally, when he or she moved to another country to get a better job for example and had to learn a new language in a natural environment, or if it was artificial, which would include studying the other language with the use of books and other materials. (cf. Hofmann 19997: 34) Age plays a very important role during the language acquisition process.

When the child learns to speak, (s)he learns to use languages as a means of expression, communication and social contact. The child acquires the formal aspects of a language, its sounds, words, meaning relationships, i.e. its grammar. But at the same time (s)he is also learning to use language as a tool for understanding and manipulating the world around her/him, i.e. (s)he is learning that (s)he needs language to form relationships with the people who surround her or him. In other words, language is an essential ingredient of the child’s socialization process. (Hofmann 1997: 34)

Children can not construct new languages with the help of another language because he or she has never learned a language before. Most of the times they also can not choose which language to learn and which not because they need both of them in their environment. That might be because their parents have decided to use two or more languages around them or because the society that surrounds the children calls for two and more languages. An adult, on the other hand side, has already learned the language system of his mother tongue. That can be helpful for him when he starts learning another language but it can also cause difficulties when the language systems differ, which can also make it harder for him to learn the new language. (cf. Hofmann 1997: 35)

Scholars argue whether children are better bilinguals than adult learners. Some, like Adler for example, think that only children can become completely perfect in two languages at the time and that you need to start learning a language very early in life. It has never been proven that this thesis is true because it is very hard to compare the processes of child language acquisition and adult language learning. (Hofmann 1997: 35) But there are also scholars who support the thesis that adults are more efficient in leaning a new language. (cf. Hofmann 1997: 37) There is one factor of language, children are widely believed to be better in and that is: pronunciation. It is easier for children to reproduce new sounds correctly because many adults are influenced by the sounds of their mother tongue. (cf. Hoffmann 1997: 37)


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Early Bilingualism. Growing up with two languages
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Proseminar: Contact Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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early, bilingualism, growing
Quote paper
Anika Kehl (Author), 2010, Early Bilingualism. Growing up with two languages, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/279061


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