Is Bilingualism an Advantage or Drawback

Term Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Bilingualism
2.1. Reasons for bilingualism
2.2. Sensitive age period
2.3. Patterns of acquisition
2.4. How does the child keep the languages apart?
2.5. Code-switching

3. Bilingualism - advantage or drawback
3.1. Bilingualism as a handicap
3.2. Bilinguals are better performers
3.3. Research on the reading abilities of mono- and bilinguals

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper will try to analyse if bilingualism brings an advantage or if it has to be seen as a drawback. At first, an overview of bilingualism is given., how does it come that people can be bilingual and how the term has been defined by different linguists is depicted. Furthermore, the different theories concerning the best age for learning and models describing the acquisition of language are introduced. Then further emphasis is set upon positive and negative effects of learning two languages. A study, in which the reading competence of monolingual and bilingual pupils has been compared, is depicted and an evaluation of the study is given.

2. Bilingualism

The term “bilingual” has been interpreted and acknowledged differently from various linguists. Webster states that bilingual means “having or using two languages especially as spoken with the fluency characteristic of a native speaker; a person using two languages especially habitually […]” and “bilingualism” as “the constant oral use of two languages”.[1] To be bilingual indicates the ability to speak two languages perfectly. Having a similar opinion, Bloomfield defines bilingualism as “the native-like control of two languages.”[2] Bloomfield also calls those bilinguals who are able to use a second language as well as their natives. In contrast to these positive opinions, other linguists have been of a completely different opinion. For Macnamara, a bilingual is anyone “who possesses a minimal competence in only one of the four language skills, listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing, in a language other than his mother tongue.”[3] The depicted opinions are of an extreme that hardly go together.

However, the term bilingualism is many faceted and has not only one connotation, positive or negative.

2.1. Reasons for bilingualism

To become bilingual can have many different reasons: Due to movements for political, social or economic reasons, or because of cultural or educational factors. People who have to speak another language due to the fact that their business partners come from another country, become fluent in the lingua franca of the foreign country and speak this language even as fluently as their native ones. Furthermore, migration can lead to bilingualism when a couple speaking two different languages, instructs their offspring in both languages.

In the latest time, people speaking different languages live in one country. Due to economic reasons, not only marginal groups change their place for living. Globalization forces people to move place because they have to work in a foreign country or earlier in life, to go abroad and gather experiences to have better chances for a well-paid job. Often this results in friendships between people from different cultures speaking different languages. People stay in the foreign country to found a family and their children become bilingual.

Bilingualism can be experience in different ways. In countries whose inhabitants’ language differs from the national language, for example in Africa, they speak a regional language, the language of the former colonial powers: English, French or Afrikaans. Today, English is the language of technique and sciences. To communicate with people of different nations all around the world, people employed in these areas, have to be very good in this language. This can also be called bilingualism somehow. Mackey said that today “in many countries, to be educated means to be bilingual.”[4]

2.2. Sensitive age period

For children it is easy to learn a new language because they have a whole life before them and thus a lot of time for gathering knowledge. The brain is said to be more receptive for new and difficult information.

Neuropsychologists investigated that the “hemispheric lateralisation for language, although present at birth, will develop during childhood, and that bilingual experience influences this lateralisation and its behavioural correlates.”[5] It has been said that all languages that are acquired beyond the critical period, will be from a better quality with those that started to learn in childhood. It has always been a controversial issue, whether the sensitive period exists or not, mostly specialists denied the existence.

Therefore Oyama favours to speak of a “sensitive” rather than a “critical” period in which it is easier to acquire a language but not said that beyond this period acquisition is nearly impossible. It has always been confirmed that people who start to learn a language very early, show a native-like communication in speech and also in writing. Others as Ekstrand deny the sensitive age period or other “biologically determined” age that can be said to support a maximum of language acquisition.

Another point is the fact that to begin early, more years are there to learn a language. On the contrary, older persons have more difficulties to gain the appropriate accent and pronunciation due to individual as well as social reasons.

2.3. Patterns of acquisition

When one wants to investigate how a bilingual child acquires language, it is very important to say that every child acquires language differently. To guarantee a fully developed language, parents should remember that the child should start to learn from birth. The acquisition process of monolinguals and bilinguals is very similar, for example, the production of the first speech sounds follows the same pattern in both types. The following observations were made during studies of several children.

2.3.1. Unitary language system

It is said the that the bilingual does initially not distinguish between language systems, starts using hybrid system. An interesting matter are the findings made about the child’s language system.

To justify the thesis, Volterra and Taeschner developed a three-stage model with following stages: At first the child communicates with the help of one lexical and syntactical system in which items from both languages are included. This stage can be compared to the method of “initial mixing”. Then the two sets of vocabulary get separated into two systems, the syntax still merges into one. At last, also the syntactic system develops into two existing on their own.

Taeschner concluded from examining her own daughter’s development that “the bilingual child is able to acquire two lexical systems simultaneously.”[6] As Hoffmann wrote, different contexts like humans and environment help the toddler to recognize which system should be used.

2.3.2. Separate or independent development hypothesis

Contradictory to the former hypothesis, suggestions were made that the bilingual’s languages develop independent of each other and that bilinguals are able to “differentiate their linguistic systems.”[7]

It has been criticized that the three-stage model showed certain contradictions. The feature “initial mixing” was explained by saying that there is no fused system but already two systems that are not yet fully developed.

2.3.3. Acquisition

The bilingual has to learn two language systems. This learning takes place separately. Children develop certain strategies, they avoid or substitute items they are not familiar with in the same way as monolinguals do it.[8] A similar means is called “simplification”. For example when using it, consonant clusters are avoided, because they are difficult to pronounce for smaller children. Another possibility is the forming of “blends”, new words made up by two words of both languages that are pronounced like it would be done in both languages. Hoffmann supplies the example “shot”, made up of the French chaud and English hot.[9] Furthermore, children borrow words from one language and integrate it into the other.


[1] Hamers, Josiane F.; Blanc, Michel H., Bilinguality and Bilingualism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2000, p.6.

[2] Hamers, Josiane F.; Blanc, Michel H., Bilinguality and Bilingualism, p.6.

[3] Ibid. p.6.

[4] Grosjean, François, Life with Two Languages- An Introduction to Bilingualism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London, England 1982, p.35.

[5] Hamers, Josiane F.; Blanc, Michel H., Bilinguality and Bilingualism, p.74.

[6] Hamers, Josiane F.; Blanc, Michel H., Bilinguality and Bilingualism, p.64.

[7] Hamers, Josiane F.; Blanc, Michel H, p.76.

[8] Hoffmann, Charlotte, An Introduction to Bilingualism, Longman, London/ New York 1991, pp.56-58.

[9] Hoffmann, Charlotte, An Introduction to Bilingualism, pp.59-60.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Is Bilingualism an Advantage or Drawback
Ruhr-University of Bochum
Child Language Acquisition
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ISBN (eBook)
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Bilingualism, Advantage, Drawback, Child, Language, Acquisition
Quote paper
Annika Lüchau (Author), 2005, Is Bilingualism an Advantage or Drawback, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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