Bilingual First Language Acquisition

Term Paper, 2014

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Principles
2.1 Bilingual First Language Acquisition
2.2 Research Issues
2.3 Categories of Early Childhood Bilingualism

3. Linguistic Analysis
3.1 Morphosyntax
3.2 Lexicon
3.3 Phonology

4. Codeswitching in early bilinguals

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Since a bicycle has two wheels and binoculars are for two eyes, it would seem that bilingualism is simply about two languages.” (Baker, 2006:14)

Adding a new language to one’s repertoire, and thus becoming bi- or multilingual, is possible at any stage in life (Auer/Wei, 2009:4). Besides personal development, there are many other factors which show the positive effects of language learning. As stated by the European commission, multilingualism enhances skills like creative thinking, learning, problem-solving and communicating in general (European Commission, 2009). In contrast to this positive view on multilingualism, the predominant opinion on early childhood bilingualism is that their cognitive and linguistic development is stretched out. There is simply too much input for the children to process, which even results in lower scores in IQ tests when compared to monolingual children (Akbulut, 2007:422). Now the question arises, whether it is possible and if it is appropriate to compare bilinguals and monolinguals for conclusions on their level of performance.

“A bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person” (Grosjean in Meisel, 2008:95) is as true as Baker’s proposition about bilinguals being more attuned to the communicative needs of those with whom they talk (Baker, 2006:24ff.). By using one language, competences such as learning to learn, autonomy and personal initiative are fostered, which leads to the development of civic and social competences (Garcia/Martin/Madrid, 2011:136). By being forced to use two or more languages, bilingual children further get to know different cultural concepts which are being transported via language. With these dimensions of having “two or more worlds of experience”, bilinguals are in a great position of implication of their knowledge on social or work related occasions (Wei in Aronin/Singleton, 2012:110).

Who becomes a bilingual is either determined by external circumstances, for instance immigration to name just one, or personal, in most cases parental, choice. In genuinely multilingual societies, for example India, many people are bi- or multilingual already from birth, but in more or less monolingual societies like the United States of America or Germany, the benefits and disadvantages of raising children bi- or multilingual are frequently used topics of ongoing debates amongst researchers, governments, media representatives and parents. (Auer/Wei, 2009:4) If plurilingualism, which is being promoted as valuable instrument for individual education and citizenship, is to become reality in Europe’s educational system, then not only have the educational systems include plurilingual programs, but also the teachers have to diversify their roles and responsibilities (Madrid/Hughes, 2011:19f.). So both providers of public education and multilingual parents, who influence a children’s language development to a great extent, have to be supported by experts. Through its ability to diminish prejudices against early bilingualism, one of the most prominent concerns being the mental overload which could occur in bilingual children, research on multilingual linguistic development is indeed of present practical relevance (Meisel, 2008:93).

Analyzing the consequences of bilingual upbringing and education for the children’s school achievement, cognitive development, linguistic processing and metalinguistic abilities makes the study of bilingual first language acquisition a respectable research area (Bialystok, 1991:1). This research paper focuses how children acquire two or more languages simultaneously from birth on, how their achievements can be measured and if their development proceeds similar to monolingual children. To a certain extend the argument includes theories of Applied Linguistics1 and Cognitive Linguistics2. Therefore, this analysis can be used as overview or short introduction about the current research on bilingual first language acquisition and may encourage the reader, which might be also a teacher who is likely to face a multilingual environment in his classrooms, to enhance his knowledge in this specific area.

2. Theoretical Principles

2.1 Bilingual First Language Acquisition

Research into multilingualism provides various definitions stating which degree of proficiency in two or more languages is required by an individual to be considered multilingual. For example, Bloomfield’s3 maximalist view on bilingualism can resemble on end of a continuum of definitions whereas Haugen’s4 or Diebold’s5 minimalist view can be found at the opposing end. To avoid confusion regarding the terminology, the definition of choice for this research paper is explained in the following paragraphs and the corresponding quote can be found at the end of this chapter.

In early childhood bilingualism the first question to answer is whether the child acquires two or more languages sequentially or simultaneously. An example of simultaneous childhood bilingualism is “when one parent speaks one language to the child, and the other parent speaks a different language” (Baker, 2006:107). When a child learns one language at home and another in the nursery or elementary school, it exemplifies sequential childhood bilingualism. Although there are no exact boundaries in between sequential and simultaneous language acquisition, the age of acquisition is often used as a marker. Another distinction to be made is if a language is acquired through direct instruction, for example in a second language class or in an informal setting like at home or in the nursery. (ibid.)

Due to the fact that bilingual first language acquisition deals with children’s simultaneous exposure to two or more languages during their first phases of language and speech development (Genesee/Nicoladis, 2006:325), it could be argued that those children have the best possibilities to gain native speaker level because nativeness is depicted as a function of age and order of acquisition (Domange, 2011:10). Nevertheless, in the specific age group on which bilingual first language acquisition focuses, there are certain boundaries in quantity and quality of language use and abilities. Therefore, it makes sense to exclude any form of written language. That includes also oral utterances which use prototypical concepts of written languages. Research suggests, that infants are able to differentiate between two languages and can effectively store the two languages for both understanding and speaking, which makes them very viable for bilingualism from birth on. (Baker, 2006:107f.) In chapter 3 these issues will be dealt with in detail.

According to the unitary language system hypothesis6 children, who are exposed to two languages simultaneously go through an initial monolingual stage with just one lexical system including words from both languages. Currently, the research questions have shifted towards more nuanced analysis of degrees of contact and separation between language A and language B. Moreover, if the amount of influence or any other factor determines which language is more proficient than the other. (Paradis, 2009:17) With respect to interdependent development of the two languages, these theoretical concerns propose methods of comparison between monolingual and bilingual children acquiring the same languages (Genesee/Nicoladis, 2006:328). While showing presentable results, this methodology can be questioned by pointing out various factors which lessens the quality of such studies.

Taking all these aspects into consideration, Grosjean’s definition of bilingualism is applicable for this research:

„Bilingualism is the regular use of two or more languages (or dialects), and bilinguals are those people who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives.“ (Grosjean, 2008:10)

Moreover, for the purpose of this study, bilingual first language acquisition is defined explicitly, as proposed by De Houwer, as a situation where the child is exposed to both languages within a week and from then on a daily basis. (De Houwer, 1990:9f.)

2.2 Research Issues

“A diagnosis of a problem in language may lead to the formation of a plan to effect a remedy.” (Baker, 2006:33)

In comparison to research on monolingualism, working with bilinguals presents a more challenging enterprise, because the topic has been looked at less extensively and studies so far have shown a great notion of variability in results (Grosjean, 2008:241). The most problematic issue with bilingual participants is that they usually acquire their two languages for different purposes and use both their languages in different domains of life, with different people (ibid. 243). In the case of bilingual first language acquisition, this argument can be invalidated to a certain extend because the situations of language learning and use are quite similar. Whether a language is used with mother, father or any other person of interest at this early stage of development does not cause the child to shift his language perspective in way that is measurable. Of course, the older the child becomes, the more diversified its individual language background will become, and therefore it may not be possible to objectively judge his or her language skills in comparison to other children, which all have other individual features because of their individual background story (ibid.244). Nevertheless, one must not overemphasis the effects of individuality, which is what every research that is reliant on human beings deals with. Research aims for prototypical results, so a range of deviations is also acceptable. To gather more knowledge or show recent tendencies in bilingual language acquisition, it may not always be necessary to get unquestionable results.

2.3 Categories of Early Childhood Bilingualism

In his Foundations of Bilingualism, Baker establishes “broad categories of early childhood bilingualism based on the language or languages spoken by the parents to the children and the language of the community.” (Baker, 2006:112f.) Some overlapping of categories can be found, as well as children who do not neatly fit into a category. When working with his definition, a balanced proficiency in both languages is very rare. (ibid.)

In the first type of category, which Baker calls one-person-one-language, the parents have different languages. They each speak their own mother tongue to the child but to each other they speak the language, which is dominantly used in the community. For example a Spanish father and a German mother in a German speaking environment. While influences of pre-school, extended family and mass media make an impact on language, as well as the parents, bilingual language learning in early childhood is not always successful. One of the languages is often more dominant and persistent parental effort is required to remind the children of constantly using both languages. Additionally parents have to organize their children’s use of time and social environment to maintain bilingualism. To proof this point, research on Japanese-English bilingual children show that the whole experience of child rearing is deeply connected with bilingual child development. (Baker, 2006:112f.)

One language used in the family and one language outside home resembles Baker’s second category of bilingual first language acquisition. It is important to say that there is much variation within this category regarding parental first language, language of schooling and neighbourhood. For instance, the second language of a parent might be used at home, whereas the community language is spoken in the neighbourhood or at school. Trilingualism can easily appear when both parents speak different mother tongues, but the family lives in an environment, where another language is spoken. (Baker, 2006:112f.)


1 Applied Linguistics mostly deals with practical problems of language and communication by applying available theories, methods and results of Linguistics or by developing new theoretical and methodological (, last visit: 01.09.2014).

2 Cognitive Linguistics mainly deals with the cognitive aspects of language, such as structural and natural categorization, functional principles of language organization, cognitive grammar, pragmatics and the relationship between language and thought (Geeraerts/Cuyckens, 2007:4).

3 Bloomfield argues that bilingualism means „native like control of two languages“ (Bloomfield in Aronin/Hufeisen, 2009:19).

4 Haugen’s bilingualism begins „at the point where the speaker of one language can produce complete, meaningful utterances in the other language.“ (Haugen in Aronin/Hufeisen, 2009:19).

5 Diebold describes bilingualism as any „contact with possible models in a second language, the ability to use these in the environment of the native language (Diebold in Aronin/Hufeisen, 2009:19).

6 Definition by Volterra and Taeschner (1978:312): “In the first stage the child has one lexical system which includes words from both languages. […], in this stage the language development of the bilingual child seems to be like the language development of the monolingual child. […] In the second stage, the child distinguishes two different lexicons, but applies the same syntactic rules to both languages. In the third stage the child speaks two languages differentiated both in lexicon and syntax […].” (Volterra and Taeschner in McCardle/Hoff, 2006:46)

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Bilingual First Language Acquisition
University of Koblenz-Landau
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bilingual, first, language, acquisition
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Adrian Müller (Author), 2014, Bilingual First Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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