Theoretical approaches to Bilingual First Language Acquisition

Term Paper, 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 2,7



Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA)
2.1 The Environment of BFLA
2.2 Overview of language development by bilingual children

3. Theories of BFLA and their Comparison
3.1 Comparison of theoretical approaches
3.2 Comparison of theoretical approach to DeHouvwer’s milestones of BFLA
4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

In today's era, society becomes more and more globalized, with the increase of languages in contact. As a result, more and more people get in touch with, learn and use new languages whether for private or occupational reasons. Therefore, the interest in studying people who use two or more languages in an equal manner has greatly increased. These people are called Bi- or Multilinguals. Due to the described development of society, the number of children growing up in multilingual communities and bilingual families is also increasing. Children achieve languages remarkable quickly and it is even more remarkable when they learn two languages simultaneously from the very beginning of their life.

The central point of interest for this paper is different theoretical approaches to the development of BFLA by children. Since the topic is studied for centuries, this paper has, of course, no claim for completeness. Thus the focus will be on Annick DeHouvwer’s work to Bilingual first language acquisition.

In Chapter 2 the mentioned work by DeHouvwer is introduced and explained on the basis of terminological definition. The following points specifie the importance of the environment for Bilingual First Language Acquisition before an overview of the major linguistic developments is made.

The focus of the third chapter is on three theories that aim at explaining the complex matter of Bilingual First Language Acquisition process. After that, these theories are compared with one another under several points of view. Subsequently, one of the named theories is applied on the introduced work of Annick DeHouvwer to show that it can certainly be applied.

2. Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA)

The notion of Bilingual First Language Acquisition, in the following designated as BFLA, is understood as “the development of language in young children who hear two languages spoken to them from birth” (DeHouvwer; 2008:2). DeHouvwer (2008:2) further explains that there is no distinction between the languages referring to the time of the first contact. That means the languages are acquired simultaneously. It is important to use expressions for them that do not suggest one language heard after the other. Therefore DeHouvwer (2008:2) uses the terms “Language A and Language Alpha” to show clearly that they are acquired simultaneously. Other contexts of language acquisition are Monolingual First Language Acquisition (MFLA) and Early Second Language Acquisition (ESLA). According to DeHouvwer (2008:4) in MFLA there is only one language heard from birth on whereas in ESLA there is a temporal distance between the contact with the first and the second language, in the latter case the use of terms that imply a successive acquisition is appropriate.

DeHouvwer (2008: xiv) points out that most of the research regarding BFLA concerns children under the age of six because it is searched for an explanation how children become bilingual the way other children become monolingual, that is, without anyone formally teaching them. Further DeHouvwer (2008: xiv) explains that children under the age of six typically learn a language without formal instruction. This may change as they start to go to school around the age of six. During that major time of interest for BFLA, it is presumably that children hear in almost all cases the languages from their family. That is why DeHouvwer (2008:7) calls the family “the primary socialization unit for BFLA”. Another reason for the amount of research on children until the age of six is explained by DeHouvwer (2008:14) as a rare occasion for investigation “since they are ‘natural linguistic laboratory’ in the sense that they are always at the same level of socio-psychological development”. DeHouvwer (2008:14) concludes that “any differences between their skills in either language must be related to linguistic factors”.

DeHouvwer (2008:5) argues that the fact that BFLA children hear two languages from birth does not ensure that they will speak these languages equal one day. The development of a child’s language depends very much on the environment they find themselves in and these environments will, among others, influence whether they speak two languages or just one (DeHouvwer 2008). The fundamental importance of possible environments for the acquisition of two languages from birth is the focus of the next chapter.

2.1 The Environment of BFLA

The environment in which children are learning languages is a very diverse field of studies. DeHouvwer (2008:96) explains that there are many aspects and perspectives of children's environment that need to be considered. In her opinion, the major reason for studying the environment in context to bilingual language acquisition is to “explain why some children become fluent speakers of two languages and others speak only one” (DeHouvwer; 2008:97). For that, one can look at the people surrounding the child with their verbal interaction and input as DeHouvwer (2008:97) says. She further states that the kind of language presentation and “the frequency with which children hear each of their languages” (DeHouvwer; 2008:97) are important aspects of children's environment. As it was pointed out earlier the input of both languages in BFLA usually starts from birth, but DeHouvwer (2008: 98) admits that real verbal communication does not start from the first day of life. But still all parents, of course, communicate with their children even if it is non-verbal communication or undefined sounds while playing as DeHouvwer (2008: 98) explains. That is why DeHouvwer (2008: 98) concludes that the first contact with the languages is not directly but indirectly through overheard speech for example from conversations between parents, relatives, siblings or input from media. So since input frequency is of major importance for BFLA (explained before) the role of overheard speech is also a significant one, especially in the first weeks of life when the child is not directly addressed with normal speech.

The importance of continuous input from both languages is emphasized by DeHouvwer (2008:127-128) through the identification of the BFLA environment as a very dynamic one. Furthermore, DeHouvwer (2008:127-128) says that changes in the state of environment can cause major changes in the BFLA development, such as loss of language and improvement of skill. Certainly, the mentioned examples are unlikely to be found close to one another, they are rather on the opposite ends of a continuum. Means that changes in the language environment can be quite risky but it also can contain positive changes in the development process according to DeHouvwer (2008:130). Exemplary for loss of input is the dead of a family member that was responsible for much of the contact with one language whereas a longer visit abroad can cause quite an improvement as DeHouvwer (2008: 130) names several cases.

The influence from language environment on the development of BFLA is to be deepened by a short view to another author. Grosjean (2008: 22) explains the influence of environment on the development of bilingualism with the “complementarity principle”. It says, according to Grosjean (2008:23) “[b]ilinguals usually acquire and use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life with different people”. Even if not referring to BFLA children, Grosjean (2008: 22-23) shows that the development and acquisition of languages depend on various environmental aspects and is highly influenced by them.

2.2 Overview of language development by bilingual children

Before starting a brief overview on the BFLA development and its major elements it is necessary to point out that even if there are highly similar processes for every child, all BFLA children acquire language in individual settings of environmental influences and therefore differ at least slightly among themselves according to DeHouvwer (2008: 29-30). Further, she (DeHouvwer) indicates that the development of BFLA children is completely equal to the development stages of Monolingual First Language Acquisition (2008:38). Means that she clearly rejects arguments pointing in a direction where children are confused by acquiring two or more languages from birth on.

It is well known that young children are, at first, not able to communicate much before their first birthday. The first steps of language learning are made as “an integral part of their overall development and takes place at the intersection of interaction, socialization and maturation” as DeHouvwer (2008:20) points out. The first people that interact with infants are normally their parents, the family or close relatives. These interactions over the first year of life cause a basic understanding of “words and phrases of two languages by the end of the first year” DeHouvwer (2008:29) says. The basis for the BFLA children's own speech is also placed in the first year and starts after 6 months, it is the so- called babbling (DeHouvwer; 2008:29). The babbling completely disappears over the second year of life and soon after their first birthday, the children start to produce sounds that sound similar to real words, until they noticeably increase the number of words said in the second half of the second year DeHouvwer (2008: 30) explains. Soon after that, the combination of words starts, which is according to DeHouvwer (2008: 32) “an important milestone in bilingual children’s language development”.


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Theoretical approaches to Bilingual First Language Acquisition
University of Bayreuth
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theoretical, bilingual, first, language, acquisition
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Anonymous, 2016, Theoretical approaches to Bilingual First Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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