The acquisition of two mother tongues - Early childhood bilingualism

Seminar Paper, 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0


1. Introduction

The phenomenon of bilingualism is very widespread and a much discussed topic. In reading about it one finds out that there are numerous facets to be considered. While doing research work I wanted to concentrate on childhood bilingualism or “early bilingualism”. When doing so, I found out that I would have to specify my topic for the seminar paper, as even concerning only this part of bilingualism the material I found was overwhelming. My special interest then focused on the aspect of the acquisition of two mother tongues. How exactly does this acquisition take place? How does the child become bilingual? Is it really already in infancy that the child is aware of learning two separate languages or does this awareness rather develop in the process of growing up? Is there a general rule one can refer to when talking about the process of acquiring two mother tongues? These are questions I want to deal with in this paper and to which I will try to find answers.

As the acquisition of two mother tongues nowadays is seen as something positive I first want to have a look at the development of this general opinion. In the next section I want to employ some case studies to show the different strategies of bilingual education and compare them to each other in order to find out if there is a favourable one. Section Four then will deal with the question whether there is only one language system or separate language systems in “early bilingualism.” Finally I want to mention some sociolinguistic aspects referring to childhood bilingualism, such as what factors determine the language choice in children or the phenomenon of interference or code-switching, to be able to draw my own conclusions in section 6.

2. The acquisition of two mother tongues / cognitive and educational aspects of bilingualism during the times

The acquisition of two mother tongues nowadays is seen as something entirely positive for the individual. Why should former generations have been of a different opinion? Is it not that knowing more is always better than knowing less?

When doing research work on bilingualism one must clearly pay attention to the publishing date, as there have been different or, to be more precise, even contradictory opinions about bilingualism during the times.

Strictly speaking we have to distinguish three major periods: the period of “detrimental effects”, the period of “neutral effects” and the period of “additive effects.” (cf. Hoffmann 1996, 121 ff.)

2.1 The period of “detrimental effects”

During the nineteenth- and the beginning of the twentieth-century a lot of IQ-tests among bilingual and monolingual children were done in order to find out if bilingualism leads to an adverse effect on the individual. In fact, the results of the tests showed lower scores among bilingual children and thereby seemed to underline the assumption of a negative influence of bilingualism on the individual`s intelligence.

But, though the monoglots performed better than the bilinguals, we have to keep in mind that these tests were already done to explain the difficulties of e.g. immigrant children. Having a closer look at how the tests worked, the fact that the tests all were done in English, i.e. the weaker language for the bilinguals, we have to question the results.

In these times, nevertheless, the conclusion drawn by linguists was the one that bilingual children seemed to be mentally confused and that this confusion was likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives. (Cf. Hoffmann 1996, 121 ff.)

2.2 The period of “neutral effects”

Before times changed into the already mentioned positive attitude towards bilingualism there was a period which considered bilingualism to have neither a positive nor a negative effect on the individual.

Studies done by W. R. Jones in Wales during the 1950s seemed to strengthen the idea that the negative results of the former IQ-tests rather sprang from socio-economic factors than from cognitive deficiency. (Cf. Hoffmann 1996, 122 ff.)

2.3 The period of “additive effects”

Having a closer look at the changing attitudes towards bilingualism one finds out that a lot of studies began to be carried out to examine the effects of bilingualism on the individual. In 1962 Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert, who originally aimed at explaining the deficit of bilinguals, did a study that changed the attitude towards bilingualism. Peal and Lambert were very careful in choosing the right method for observation, as they wanted to find methods to compensate the assumed deficiencies.

The results were surprising. The bilingual children outperformed the monoglots in verbal as well as in non-verbal tests. Though there are different opinions concerning the methods employed, the studies of Peal and Lambert gave way to a lot of other studies looking for the nowadays-assumed “additive effects” of bilingualism on the individual.

3. Strategies of bilingual education and their success shown by some case studies

As we have seen in the section before the attitude towards bilingualism is nowadays quite positive. As a result there are several books available, which give advice to parents who want to bring up their children bilingually. The relatively frequent marriage of people belonging to different cultures as well as the increase of (im) migration play an important role for the growth of the number of bilinguals. Parents have to decide whether they want to bring up their children bilingually or not. If they agree on a bilingual education there are several strategies one can refer to. In this section I want to concentrate on the most important of these strategies. As a result I want to draw a first conclusion in so far as what strategy appears to be the most adequate one.

3.1. One person - one language strategy

Parents, who have different native languages but have certain knowledge of the language of the other parent as well often prefer to apply this strategy. For the most part the language of one parent is also the dominant language of the community the family lives in. The strategy, as the title already implies, consists of one parent speaking consistently his/her own language to the child from birth onwards. There are some cases in which the parents speak the same language to the child and e.g. the nurse speaks another language. In all cases however, one language can always be assigned to one special person. (Cf. Romaine 1995, 183 ff.)

The most famous case study based on this strategy is the one of Leopold examining the bilingual development of his daughter Hildegard. Leopold himself only addressed his daughter in German whereas his wife communicated with Hildegard only in English, the language of the community as Hildegard was born in the United States. What is interesting, is that the bilingual does not build up a vocabulary consisting of twice as much words as that of a monolingual. The reason can be found in the avoidance of equivalents. “The bilingual child’s capacity to produce new words is split between the two languages. The child deals with this by giving priority to new words at the expense of equivalents.” (Romaine 1995, 189) This fact is not surprising as, as we will see later, the acceptation of equivalents means an awareness of language differentiation that cannot be expected from the child at an early age already.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


The acquisition of two mother tongues - Early childhood bilingualism
RWTH Aachen University  (Anglistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
426 KB
Quote paper
Bianca Sonnenschein (Author), 2003, The acquisition of two mother tongues - Early childhood bilingualism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The acquisition of two mother tongues - Early childhood bilingualism

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free