Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rethinking bilingual acquisition

Watch me turn a presentation I gave in class last week into a blog post this week! Don't worry, it's interesting.

The class is called Bilingual Education, and although it is difficult and time-consuming, I am learning so much. Linguists can sometimes be snobs about who is and who isn't considered bilingual (please don't ask me how many languages I speak unless you have 20 minutes to hear the answer), so it was nice to discuss it in class and decide that anyone who can use more than one language appropriately in different contexts is a bilingual. Congratulations! It turns out that the idea of a perfect or balanced bilingual - someone who is exactly, equally competent in two languages - is a big fat myth, or at least a great rarity.

Anyway, my presentation was about rethinking bilingual acquisition in very young children. Back in the day, people used to think that bilingualism in children was detrimental to development and would result in all kinds of delays. Basically, the accepted school of thought was that the brain is only set up to handle one language at birth, and if you give it more input, it will be confused for a while before it figures out how to settle down.

Well, since the 1980s (though it took time to gain its place in accepted thought), they've figured out that actually, the infant brain does quite well with two languages, thank you very much. Check out some of these findings.

1. Babies can totally tell the difference between two separate languages, and they can remember those differences later on. And guess what? This holds true even while the babies are in utero. Pretty amazing. (And since you're going to ask, the research involved measuring changes in heart rate.)

2. Even as young as one or two years old, bilingual children can adjust their use of language depending on the context. For example, if they have a French-speaking dad and an English-speaking mom, they will generally speak more French to the dad and more English to the mom. Even more interesting (and telling) is the fact that this holds true even with strangers. If they are introduced to a (researcher posing as a) stranger who only speaks French, the kids will extend their use of French as much as possible when talking with that stranger. In other words, they know there are two languages and they know when to use them appropriately.

3. Bilingual kids may experience some delays in acquiring their two languages, but they also may pick up some aspects of language faster than monolinguals. It depends on the particular combination of languages. Also, even if there is some initial, temporary delay in bilinguals, they still show greater linguistic capacity overall in mixing and discriminating between their languages in the right contexts.

Neat, huh! Now let's all go teach our children a second language, mmmkay?

(All of these findings are reported in Fred Genesee's article, "Rethinking Bilingual Acquisition," published in Multilingual Matters 123: Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles in 2003.)


Crys said...

So here is just a weird kink in my own personal language acquisition years...When my parents had me my father was exceptionally insecure about his place in the United States and his own heavenly accented English, and so as a result as children he insisted that our mother and he only talk to us in English, even though she had learned Spanish when they first got married so that his family couldn't talk behind her back infront of her face and they talked to eachother predominantly in Spanish. (Years later when he was feeling much more secure with himself he reversed this parenting decision with my half brother and sister and they speak, English, Spanish, and Togalog and yes sometimes I do hate them for this :) So I grew up hearing a language that I was absolutely never encouraged to speak. The result...with very little effort I to this day can understand quite a bit of Spanish but all my attempts to learn to speak the language have been epic fails...junior high, high school, college, since graduated and part of that has been the frustration with the understanding I gained as kid. When I got to say a sentence in Spanish I know exactly how it should sound, but when I try to force my mouth and tongue to say the same words I find it almost impossible. This frustration makes it absolutely no fun :) So I guess the lesson is...raise them up right in the beginning :)

Bridget said...

Don't worry, Crys, we talk about freaks like you in class all the time :). Seriously, though, there are so many different language situations out there you wouldn't even believe it. The professor herself no longer speaks what was her first language. Is that weird or what??

You're what we'd call receptively competent, meaning you can understand, but not productive, since you can't speak it.

Crys said...

I always knew I had a productivity problem :)

Liz Johnson said...

Ok, this is fascinating. I need to be better about teaching my kids Spanish.

Sarah Familia said...

I'm on a couple of boards for parents with multilingual children, and I love hearing about all the unique (and sometimes funny) language situations that happen. Parents are always having to print out statistics and research articles to support the points you mentioned, since pediatricians (especially in predominantly monolingual areas) have not caught up with research, and often discourage bilingualism.

I remember an interesting conversation I had with a native Lebanese. He was a balanced trilingual, and he said that as a child, he would always wait for a new acquaintance to speak first, so he would know which language to use.

As with most things, it seems that children are much smarter and more resourceful than we tend to think!

Eevi said...

So you obviously know that FInnish is my first language; however, I am much more comfortable in my English than Finnish nowadays. It is easier for me to have a conversation in English than Finnish. But I would say that I understand FInnish better than English. There are still words every now and then in English that I dont know but this doesnt happen in Finnish.

It takes a lot of energy for me to speak FInnish to Saku since no one else around us speaks it. And I know that his English will be better and more used in the future, but I figured I would try to do as much FInnish as possible before he starts spending most of his time outside the home (when school starts).

Susanne said...

My BIL is from Venezuela and he learned English mostly from watching American TV shows and movies. Later when he moved here (initially to FL) to live with his uncle (American) and aunt (Venezuelan) he learned English very very well.

He said he would sit in his room and say words over and over again. "Refrigerator" was especially hard! Now he speaks English perfectly and some friends from Chile didn't think he was a native Spanish speaker because he doesn't have the same heavy accent that they have. So Rolando started talking to Will almost challenging him to answer back properly. Which, of course, Will did!

When Will's brother visited the US this summer for the first time ever, we had fun hearing Will and Juan speaking to each other in Spanish since Juan knows very little English.

Sadly, Will didn't teach Michael his native language which Samer, by the way, finds unbelievable.

But in my neighborhood we have a family with a Vietnamese father and his wife told me Pick never wanted to teach the girls his native language.

I wish I knew other languages. My grandfather was always good at picking up other languages. He was born in China and only a few years ago was able to carry on a conversation with a lady in a Chinese restaurant despite my grandfather not having been in China for probably 65-70 years. It's amazing how he was able to remember because he hasn't really practiced on us except for singing "Jesus Loves Me." :)

Oh, now I know (maybe) why you never answered my question about how many languages you and Jeremy speak. I didn't realize you knew so many it would take TWENTY MINUTES to tell me!

Thanks for sharing this.


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