Bilingual First Language Acquisition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Bi & Multiculturalism
2.1 Balanced Bilingualism

3. Types of simultaneous Acquisition:
Categories of Early Childhood Bilingualism

4. Linguistics
4.1 Morphosyntax
4.2 The Lexicon
4.3 Phonology

5. Codeswitching & Codemixing in bilingual children

6. Communicative Competence

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction:

Given the changes in the lives of people over the last sixty or so years in regard to education, technology and communication, as well as multiculturalism and the political situation, an obvious development into a multilingual modern world can be discerned. Already twenty years ago, Milroy and Muysken pointed out an increase in bilingualism as “a world wide phenomenon” (1995: 1), but especially the recent situation of migration and globalisation, spreading language speakers far beyond their original language territories, has created a need for more diverse language standards, increasing the imperative of bi- or multilingualism. Furthermore, the establishment of “politically legitimised national languages” (Milroy/Muysken 1995:2) next to regional, less common languages makes the development of multilingual abilities a necessary, sometimes essential part of surviving in a modernised, global world.

While it is possible to add another language to a person’s proficiency at any time in their life, the effort and challenge connected to the endeavour seem to change according to age, as well as abilities of the speaker trying to learn. Therefore, the idea of teaching a child more than one language at the early stages of its life would seem to increase the difficulty of learning. Still, as Lanza claims, bilingual first language learners show little problem in acquiring more than one language at the same time (2000: 227f) and Baker even emphasises that “babies appear biologically ready to acquire, store and differentiate two or more languages from birth onwards” (Baker 2011: 95).

The following paper focuses on bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA). While there is a quantity of fields researched in BFLA, the arguably prior question concerns the development of bilingual learners in comparison to monolingual learners regarding the “developmental path and [the] timecourse of language development” (Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 324). This question is based on the assumption, that the acquisition of two languages might challenge a language learner, thereby impeding their process in comparison to monolingual child- learners.

To illuminate the different aspects of bilingualism and BFLA, this paper is going to have a look at morphosyntax, the lexicon and phonology, as well as code- mixing and communicative competence.

2. Bi- & Multilingualism

To be considered multilingual, a speaker has to show a certain degree of proficiency in two or more languages, regarding his ability to talk, write and understand these. The level at which a speaker has to be versed in his languages to be considered multilingual, however, varies throughout the research. There are manifold theories, reaching from Bloomfield’s maximalist view on bilingualism, specifying it as a “native like control of two languages” (1935:56), to less demanding theories, which merely demand a bilingual speaker to be able to produce complete, meaningful utterances and to use these in the environment of the native language (comp. Aaronin/ Hufeisen 2009: 19). The question, who is categorised as bilingual and who is not, mostly depends on the purpose of categorization (comp. Baker 2011: 8). To gain a certain outcome, particular languages or people might be left out of the definition of bilingualism. It is, therefore, necessary to determine the definition of bilingualism used as a reference in this paper.

The term Bilingual First Language Acquisition describes the simultaneous acquisition of two languages from birth. Baker states that “since a bicycle has two wheels and binoculars are for two eyes, it would seem that bilingualism is simply about two languages” (2011:2). To clarify the meaning of BFLA, this paper will use François Grosjean’s definition of bilingualism:

„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).

While the opportunities to become bi- or multilingual are given in any stage of a person’s life (comp. Auer/Wei 2009:4), since a speaker should be able to start learning new languages at any age, there are diverse studies concerned with BFLA.

There are different research goals in the field of BFLA, but one of the main research questions wants to prove that the language acquisition in bilingual and monolingual children is comparable, even though bilinguals “develop two language systems instead of one” (Cantone 2007: 1). While researchers were concerned about the question, whether children are able to distinguish two languages while learning from the beginning, contemporary research addresses “the interplay of the two languages, though they suppose them to develop separately” (Cantone 2007: 2).

BFLA has a “remarkably long history” (Genese/ Nicoladis 2008: 324); the first notable publication dealing with it being from 1913 when Ronjat publicised a description of his son Louis’ simultaneous acquisition of German and French. Louis’ language abilities progressed rapidly in both languages while showing little confusion, even though both his parents respectively only used one of the languages to communicate with him (comp. Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 324). This distribution of languages was seen as the reason for Louis’ lack of disarrangement, seeing the exact division as a means for him to separate both languages while learning.

In 1949, when Leopold published his diary study on the bilingual upbringing of his daughter Hildegard, Ronjat’s findings were challenged, since Hildegard, even though her parents also applied the one parent- one language rule, passed through a stage of fusion, in which she used words from both languages. This was interpreted as a sign of confusion, merging the two languages and “functioning as a monolingual” (Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 324).

These two examples have shaped the study of BFLA until this day. The dividing method is a common example of contemporary bilingualism, as Baker lists the approach “when one parent speaks one language to the child, and the other parent speaks a different language” (2011: 107) as one of the most frequently occurring forms of bilingualism. Leopold’s conclusion, that children pass through a multilingual stage in spite of learning several languages is therefore added to different approaches claiming that BFLA “strains the child’s language learning capacity, leading to delayed and even impaired forms of language development” (Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 324f).

Another form of early bilingualism occurs, when a child learns one language at home while being confronted with a different one at a nursery or kindergarten. This kind of bilingual learning is of particular importance today, as it reflects the way in which most immigrant children learn the language of their new home country. However, as the child, in this case, is not exposed to both languages from the same time on, this language acquisition is seen as sequential, rather than simultaneous.

Bilingual first language acquisition, though, only addresses the simultaneous exposure of a child to two languages, solely including the primary phases of language and speech development to about four years of age (comp. Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 325). This identification of a certain age group is automatically connected with resulting limitations of language use and abilities, excluding writing from being a factor of bilingual learning as a whole.

While, until recently, academics estimated a child to operate like a monolingual, even if it was subjected to two languages from birth on, using a “single, united language system” (Baker 2011: 97), newer research distinguishes between more differentiated systems of language degrees. It does not support the old notion, that both languages are fused to form a “unitary language system”, which claimed that in an initial stage of learning the two languages are not differentiated at all. (comp. Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 325). Volterra and Taeschner formulated an explicit hypothesis describing the concept:

“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 od 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…” (Genesee/ Nicoladis 2008: 325; quoting Volterra/ Taeschner 1987).

Contemporary research, however, distanced itself from this hypothesis, or as Grosjean puts it: “A bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person” (1989:4). Instead, the contemporary general agreement is an underlying difference between the languages presented to a bilingual child, even though both languages develop autonomously and inter- dependently, which is “partly a function of transfer between types of language combination” (comp. Baker 2011: 97f.).

2.1 Balanced Bilingualism

Examining studies on bilingualism, the use of exemplary bilinguals with well- developed competences in both languages is frequently found. These bilingual speakers, who are “approximately equally fluent in two languages across various contexts” (Baker 2011: 8) have been termed equilinguals, ambilinguals or most commonly, balanced bilinguals.

The concept of balanced bilingualism is oftentimes idealised, since the competence of a bilingual speaker often varies in his languages according to the fields of language use. These fields might include language used at work, at home, in scientific situations, in a community, in media or politics and so on. It is most common for bilinguals to apply their languages with different purposes (comp. Baker 2011: 8).

Another factor problematizing the concept of balanced bilingualism is the way the definition is applied: A bilingual speaker may exhibit a balanced proficiency in two languages, yet his abilities in these languages could be at a low level. The “implicit idea of balanced bilingualism” (Baker 2011: 9), however, mostly refers to an ‘appropriate’ competence in the used languages, rather than a minimal, but balanced ability in both.

3. Types of simultaneous Acquisition:

Categories of Early Childhood Bilingualism

Baker distinguishes between several categories of early childhood bilingualism, basing his divisions on the “language or languages spoken by the parents to the children and the language of the community” (2011: 99), though he points out that not every child fits into such categories and that some aspects of the categories might overlap. He, in this connection, refers to changing language circumstances, for example, the uneven distribution of languages spoken or a shift in language use, when a child is suddenly confronted with one language more than before. Baker claims that “a child rarely or never has an equal balance in two- language experience” (Baker 2011: 99), declaring that balanced bilingualism can rather be seen as a myth than a reality.

The first category Baker distinguishes is called One person - one language. Like the approach used by Ronjat and Leopold, the parents of a bilingually raised child speak different languages, and one of those is often “the dominant language of the community” (Baker 2011: 99) the family lives in. From birth on, each parent speaks to the child in their respective language, while agreeing on one language to communicate with each other. Even though this kind of bilingual learning is often suggested as a successful strategy, it is easy to forget about external influences like community, media, pre-school or extended family, making one language excel as more dominant than the other. Baker emphasises the need for constant parental guidance and persistence, as they are required to remind their children regularly to use the correct language and organise the child’s social environment and use of time. In this way, “raising children bilingually in intermarried families is emotionally demanding work” (Baker 2011: 100, quoting Okita 2002).

In the second type of category, which Baker calls Home language is different from the language outside the home, the child is confronted with one language at home, while the second language is spoken outside of it. As Baker points out, there is much variation in this category, as the educational language, neighbourhood- language and parental language might differ from each other. At the same time, one of the parents might be using a language that is not their mother tongue, adapting to a preferential language that is spoken at their home. Trilingualism might occur as a result of this type of language learning, if each parent speaks a different language to the child from birth, while it is provided with a third language outside from home (comp Baker 2011: 100).

Mixed Language, as the third category is called, is a category in which the parents of a bilingual child both speak two languages with it, thereby not creating the boundaries seen in the first two categories. Therefore, codeswitching and codemixing are acceptable in the bilingual home, as well as in the community they live in and a child will typically codeswitch with other bilinguals speaking its languages. At the same time, codeswitching is unlikely to occur in communication with monolinguals. Even though codeswitching and codemixing are acceptable in most parts of the bilingual learner’s environment, in this case, some domains, like school, might require the “separation of language code” (Baker 2011: 100) or the dominant language of the community might influence the child’s language learning.

The last category introduced by Barker is not necessarily part of first language acquisition since it describes the Delayed introduction of the second language. In this case, parents “may delay exposure to [the] dominant language” (Baker 2011: 100) of the neighbourhood, community or school, exclusively communicating with the child in one language for the first two or three years of its life. While the aim is to create a strong foundation in a minority heritage language, the child will only be exposed to the dominant language of its environment in school or in the neighbourhood.

While the first two categories are considered as quite successful, the last two categories are often more negatively evaluated, mirroring social class difference, as One parent- one language is mostly associated with “elite and middle class families” (Baker 2011: 101), while the last two are more common in economically disadvantages heritage groups.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Bilingual First Language Acquisition
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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bilingual, first, language, acquisition
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Mirja Quix (Author), 2016, Bilingual First Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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