Becoming Bilingual: Acquiring Two Languages

Students who have a home language (L1) other than English are faced with the challenge of learning a new or target language (L2) that has different features from their home language. The syntactic, semantic, morphemic, phonetic, and pragmatic aspects of the two languages may be significantly different. Languages from the same “language family” have similar characteristics and features, whereas languages from different language families will be dissimilar (Crystal, 1987). For example, Spanish and French are both in the Indo-European (Romance) language family and have some similarities such as the use of an alphabetic writing system and similar cognates/word stems. In contrast, Spanish and Chinese belong to different language families and are distinctly different in not only the writing system used, but in other aspects of language as well, including syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and morphemic. The ways in which aspects of language knowledge are similar or different between the two languages influences second language acquisition. Children who are attempting to learn a language from a different language family will find it more difficult than if they were attempting to learn another language from the same language family. As the second language is learned, children build on their knowledge of language by making connections and comparisons between the home language and the target language. Target languages that are distinctly different from the home language will require more effort to learn.

Second language learners’ efforts in distinguishing between the relevant language knowledge in two different systems are sometimes evident in their use of English in composing oral stories (Otto, 1987). Preschool children who are in the process of acquiring English language knowledge and distinguishing that knowledge from their first or home language may produce stories that are less fluent, less cohesive, or both. As a result, their stories might be judged as indicative of lower academic ability and language competency, when, in fact, a complex process of distinguishing between the various aspects of each language is occurring.

Children who are exposed to two languages at home acquire both languages as “first languages” (Piper, 1998). In some homes, each parent speaks a different language with the child; in other homes, the parents use one language with the child and grandparents or other caregivers use the second language. In still other homes, both parents speak both languages to the child, mixing the two languages. It appears that children acquire bilingualism with less confusion when the languages are kept separate by the parent or caregiver who speaks them (Piper, 1998).

When children acquire two languages prior to the age of three, it is termed simultaneous bilingualism (Baker, 1996; Goodz, 1994). This type of bilingualism is usually found in homes where parents speak two (or more) languages. Successive bilingualism refers to instances when children acquire their second language after age three. In many respects, second language acquisition in successive bilingualism resembles first language acquisition. Language is acquired through active hypothesizing of rules, analyzing rules, making errors, and revising the rules. The early stages of language acquisition are similar for first and second language learners, with one-word utterances appearing initially, followed by two-word utterances and then multiword utterances (Genesee & Nicoladis, 1995). The rate of acquisition of vocabulary (semantic knowledge) of L2 learners is somewhat slower only during the preschool years (Bialystok, 1988; Genesee & Nicoladis, 1995).

As bilingual children acquire the home and target languages, they have been found to mix the languages in the same communicative interaction. This phenomenon has been analyzed differently by various researchers. Some have documented what they call language interference, when children appear to confuse knowledge of one of the aspects of L1 language with that of L2 language. For example, a child might use the vocabulary or syntactic structure of one language when attempting to communicate in the other language. Other researchers have questioned the existence of language interference, citing evidence that bilingual children appear to be able to distinguish between two language systems early on (De Houwer, 1990; Goodz, 1994; Lanza, 1992; Meisel, 1994). Instances where children appear to be mixing the two languages (also known as code mixing or language mixing) may simply reflect their parents’ use of two languages. It may also reflect attempts to maintain a conversation when knowledge of the second language is not sufficient to express the desired message (Baker, 1996; Goodz, 1994; Krashen, 1995). For example, if a child is attempting to communicate that she wants a drink of water in English, and she does not recall the word water, she may instead say, “Mommy, agua please,” inserting a Spanish word in an English phrase to get her message across.

Codeswitching is distinguished from code mixing and language interference by the speaker’s apparently conscious and deliberate use of two languages within the same sentence or from one sentence to another (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000). Codeswitching is thought to be influenced by social or psychological factors, such as a desire to add emphasis or to show ethnic unity (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000; Lessow-Hurley, 2000). In some instances, isolated words of a language are “borrowed” and inserted into the communication by second language learners. This typically occurs when a concept label is not available in the language being used (e.g., proper noun or new terminology, such as that referring to technology) or if a particularly specific shade of meaning is needed (Baker, 1996; Bhatia & Ritchie, 1996; Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000; Lessow-Hurley, 2000).

Benefits of bilingualism

The American educational community is now more aware of the benefits of bilingualism. In the past, bilingualism was thought to be an educational handicap, especially prior to 1960. It was believed that children could not learn a second language while still maintaining and refining their first language. Thus, children were strongly discouraged from speaking their first language and in many instances were made to feel ashamed of speaking a language different than English (Cummins, 1995). For some children, learning a second language also meant that they would lose the ability to speak their first language (Evans, 1994; Wong Fillmore, 1991). This phenomenon has been termed subtractive bilingualism since the result of acquiring a second language results in the loss of the child’s first language. This result may have a negative impact on families as communication is disrupted. Transmission of cultural beliefs and parenting interactions require a shared language. Prior to the late 1970s, bilingual children’s academic failures were considered to be due to their bilingualism. Since that time, research has increased our understanding of the factors involved in second language acquisition, the ways in which second language acquisition can be facilitated and enhanced, and the ways in which the first language can be maintained. According to Wong Fillmore’s (1991) research, “the timing and the conditions under which they [children] come into contact with English” determine whether children will retain and continue to use their home language as well as influencing the acquisition of English (p. 323). Current approaches to bilingualism emphasize the acquisition of a second (target) language, with the continued development of the home language. This approach is also referred to as additive bilingualism because a child’s language skills are enhanced in both languages.

Children who have acquired a level of fluency in two languages have been reported to have higher levels of metalinguistic awareness, greater and earlier awareness of language structure, wider perspectives, and more social skills (Ben Zeev, 1977; Genesee, Tucker, & Lambert, 1975; Goodz, Legare, & Bilodeau, 1987; Ianco-Worrall, 1972). The acquisition of fluency in more than one language is accompanied by a greater awareness of the linguistic features of languages and the cultural ways in which the respective languages are used in various interactions (Thompson, 1999). This body of recent research supports the conclusion that children acquire language knowledge not only at the linguistic level, but at the metalinguistic knowledge level and level of metalinguistic knowledge verbalization as well. The following examples of the distinctions required of Spanish-fluent children learning English illustrates the complexity involved in second language acquisition.