Bilingual first-language acquisition is the learning of both languages in a naturalistic setting, in which both formal aspects and the social conventions of the languages must be acquired. Hence, a child must learn the formal properties of languages, as well as the rules which govern the social and pragmatic uses of languages.
Acquiring Two Languages
Language is not neutral .This means that some types of behavior are likely to influence the child’s attitudes toward the two languages in either negative or positive ways.
Among the factors which affect the acquisition of two languages simultaneously are the quality and the quantity of interaction.
What may be critical to the long-term success of the child’s bilingualism is a positive attitude toward the minority language, together with plenty of opportunities to use it.
Teasing out the generalization form bilingual language-acquisition research is often difficult because of the variability inherent in any such study.
Children acquire language at greatly varying rates and adopt different strategies and approaches in the process. These differences are compounded when the child is becoming bilingual. However, in general, it appears that bilingual children acquire both their languages at a similar rate and in a similar manner (see, for example, Petitto et al. 2001) to monolingual children.
Defining Bilingual First-Language Acquisition
The term bilingual first language acquisition is now fairly widely used to refer to children in a bilingual environment acquiring two languages simultaneously from birth (see De Houwer 1995). This term can be compared to bilingual second-language acquisition where the child is learning a second language after learning the first—also known as sequential acquisition.
MacLaughlin (1984) used the term to refer to children learning two languages under the age of three.
Children at this age speak relatively fluently, are developing rapidly in terms of their knowledge and use of syntax and morphology, and demonstrate rudimentary awareness of the social and pragmatic constraints of the language they are acquiring.
The most straightforward definitions of bilingual first-language acquisition is one where the child has access to both languages from birth.
The Complex Linguistic Environment of the Child
Bi- or multilinguistic environments are the most common for the acquisition of two first languages, these also tend to be the least investigated (Romaine 1995).
Fewer children will develop their two languages in a situation in which the surrounding community is monolingual, although this group which tends to be the most studied—largely because the majority f the detailed case studies of bilingual language acquisition are the result of linguists studying their own children.
To become a bilingual, a child must grow up in a bilingual environment. Romaine (1995:183-185) outlines a number of different bilingual environmental dimensions determined by three criteria, each of which may impact on the eventual success of the child’s bilingualism:
- The language(s) which the parents speak and whether they are the same or different
- The language which is spoken in the community in which the family lives, and whether this community is monolingual or bilingual
- Whether the language(s) spoken are the same as or different from those of parents, and the strategies the parents adopt in speaking to the child.
While individual languages differ in terms of structure, phonology, pragmatics, socio-cultural norms, etc., despite these differences monolingual children receive linguistic input which is homogeneous in a number of important ways:
- It consists of one language only.
- Both parents speak that language to the child.
- The language of the community around them is the same as the language spoken home.
- When they enter into formal childcare and/or education institutions, the language they have learned is the one that is used in the institutional setting.
Bilingual or multilingual children will experience some or all of the following:
- Linguistic input that consists of more than one language
- Each parent speaking a different language to them
- The language of the community differing form either one or both of the languages they speak at home
- The language in formal childcare and/or educational institutions not being one of the languages of which they have been exposed.
The differentiation among functional competencies in the two languages is an important one. For almost all bilinguals, their languages will be functionally separated.
For example, as Romaine (1995) points out, although there are studies that have argued that bilingual children tend to lag behind their monolingual peers in vocabulary acquisition; a rather different picture emerges if the vocabulary acquisition in both languages together is considered.
One System or Two?
One of the most pervasive questions in bilingual child language acquisition has been the issue of whether the child begins with one linguistic system or two. In other words, is the child initially unable to differentiate between the two systems, and if this is the case, how early, and what stage, do the linguistic systems become differentiated?
Evidence for the idea of a single system was empirically supported by examples of language mixing which were reported in early bilingual acquisition (e.g. Lindholn and Padilla 1978; Redlinger and Park 1980). This unitary language system assumed an underlying undifferentiated subsystem for each of phonology, lexicon, and syntax.
Volterra and Taeschner (1978) proposed a three-stage model bilingual language development:
First stage – the child’s system is composed of a single lexical system which includes words from both languages.
Second stage-the child separates the two lexicons, but maintains a single set of syntactic rules for both languages.
Third stage-the child has two different codes but associates each language with specific people-that is, the child demonstrates pragmatic differentiation of the two languages.
The alternative hypothesis, the independent hypothesis, claims that children acquiring two languages separate the languages form a very early age.
In bilingual acquisition literature much of the mixing reported in the bilingual child’s speech has been reported as restricted use of specific lexical items, or overuse of the other language. This is issue also occurs in first/mono-language acquisition, but here it is reported as being either an underextension (where the item or word is used very limited in context) or overextension (where the item or word is used in a wider variety of situations than is appropriate).
Bilingual children of different languages have different time lines in their acquisition of specific features of syntax, and that both frequency, saliency, and typological factors will influence the rate of acquisition in both languages. It may be the case that the bilingual child uses his or her bilingual resources to best effect by expressing something in one language which the child is yet to acquire the other. Genesee (1989: 174) concludes:
Contrary to most interpretations of bilingual development, bilingual children are able to differentiate their language systems differentially in contextually sensitive ways . . . serious research attention needs to be given to parental input in the form of bilingual mixing as possible source of influence in children’s mixing. Evidence that children’s mixing may indeed be related to mixed input by parents was presented. This evidence is limited to lexical mixing, and more attention to phonological, morphological, and other kinds of mixing by parents and children is clearly needed.
Parental Strategies and Sociolinguistic Context
Essential to an understanding of how the bilingual child’s language develops are documented in records of the amount and type of input the child receives in his or her different languages.
Test (2001) reports that the English-Arabic bilingual child she studied was spoken to in English by the mother, and Arabic by the father. The father spent three days a week at home, while the mother spent four days a week at home, and each parent spoke only their own language with the child. The parents were living in Sweden, and Swedish was the language they spoke outside the home, but they communicated with each other in English.
The parents, through differences in their gesture and language use, seem to have created a prelinguistic social communicative context which would support the child seeing the two communicative systems both gesturally and verbally. During the limited amount of time that the child was studied here, it seems that this child perceives these differences in the gestural system and reflects these differences in his own use of gesture. (Test 2001: 172)
In evaluating the amount of input that bilingual children receive, a variety of factors, which include both language use and other non-linguistic factors, need to be taken account.
Documentation of the context of bilingual language acquisition is essential to an understanding of bilingual acquisition. Lanza (2004) argues that language mixing in bilingual children is not a reflection of the child confusing the two languages but, rather, may reflect the way language is used by parents. Lanza (2004: 268) suggests that there are five basic types of discourse strategies which parents may adopt in response to their children’s language mixing:
Minimal Grasp – the parent will respond to the child’s utterance in Language B by requesting clarification in Language A.
Expressed Guess – the parent will make a guess using Language A at the child’s meaning in Language B.
Adult Repetition – the adult repeats in Language A the child’s utterance provided in Language B.
Move-On - the parent demonstrating that the child’s utterance has been understood simply allowing the conversation or activity to continue.
Code Mixing – the parent switches from Language A to Language B in response to child’s code mix.
“In family bilingualism parental strategies are decisive for establishing active bilingualism, particularly the strategies of the minority language-speaking parent” (Lanza 2004: 326).
Other Factors Impacting On Bilingual Acquisition
One factor which needs to be taken into consideration is the status of the minority language in the family. In a situation where one of the parents speaks a minority language, and the other speaks the language of the outside community, it may be quite challenging to ensure that the child receives adequate input from the minority language to enable the child to become proficient in both languages.
Juan-Gauru and Pérez-Vidal (2001) argue that the strategy of using code mixing by the speaker of the more dominant language may illustrate an attempt by this parent to promote the use of the minority language.
In many situations where the community is bilingual, people may move from one language to another in the same conversational turn, or in the same sentence. Generally there has been much less of a focus on the kinds of developmental patterns which may occur in situations where children are growing up bilingually but where the input they are receiving is variable and mixed.