Sunday, August 06, 2006

Book Review: Introduction to Bilingualism (chapters 2, 3 & 4): Language development in children

Continuing with my book review of Charlotte Hoffmann's Introduction to Bilingualism, I'd like to share some ideas gleaned from chapters 2 through 4. (This is turning into more of a summary than a review per se, perhaps because I'm not yet knowledgeable enough about this topic to poke holes in the author's ideas.)

You've probably heard that we should teach languages to children as young as possible because they'll learn much more easily than adults would. I mean, that's one reason why I started speaking French to Carl the day I visited him and his excited new parents in the hospital. But Hoffmann argues that children are not necessarily better than adults at acquiring language, except with regards to pronunciation: "Children are believed to have greater phonetic-auditory ability, which enables them to distinguish and reproduce new sounds quite easily, whereas adults many experience some degree of interference from their first language" (p. 35-6).

So why do we mostly monolingual Americans curse the fact that we had to wait until 9th grade to take a foreign language in school? Here are some of the qualities that children do have that facilitate their acquisition and fluency: lower inhibitions than adults, willingness to learn via play, great mimicry skills. But kids don't have the same skills and knowledge that adults have developed, like an understanding of how languages work (i.e. they can't transfer concepts from one language to another), abstraction, classification, and generalization. (I don't know what age group she's referring to, though--while this is perhaps true for toddlers, these skills do emerge in elementary school, perhaps earlier.) At any rate, these ideas don't mean that we shouldn't bother to teach languages until the child is a more sophisticated thinker.

Here's what I've read and heard over and over: consistency is important when teaching second languages to children, exposing the kids to the pattern of each person always speaking the same language in the same contexts. (This is known as OPOL: the one parent, one language approach.) Most researchers seem to agree on this point. This prevents the child from seeing language use as arbitrary and confusing (45), and it "helps the child to understand that the two codes are possible and distinct means of communication, existing in their own right, rather than being attributes of certain people." Mixed input can lead to mixed speech--but this does not mean delayed language development (87)!

Research also shows that infants develop receptive language skills very early on (which implies that they should be exposed to both languages from birth). They can recognize and distinguish between human and non-human sounds, familiar and unfamiliar voices; they can also hear nuances of sounds like pitch, stress, vowel length, and intonation. Wow! Infants!

I'm going to quote Hoffmann at length here, because this is important, if considerably daunting:

"The degree of success of OPOL will depend mainly on such factors as whether the parents are consistent enough in their language use, whether the child has enough exposure to the [second language], whether (s)he perceives the need to use both languages, and whether (s)he receives the right kind and amount of social support. Providing the first two conditions, consistency and exposure, are met, the establishment of bilingualism is not usually problematic. However, the maintenance of the [second language] much less certain. Some children may not see much point in using the language of one parent, once they realize that he or she also speaks the language of the other....When the child is older the input from the weaker language may be too one-sided, too limited in register and style...for the two languages to develop on the same level. In fact, judging from the parents' accounts (and my own experience), bringing children up bilingually requires considerable effort, expense and ingenuity." (44-5) She implies throughout the book, however, that these efforts are worthwhile.

Speaking of research studies, two theories for explaining children's bilingualism emerged in the 1960s:
1. The unitary language system: The child starts with one language system which gradually separates into his understanding that two languages exist.
2. The separate/individual development hypothesis: The child differentiates between the two languages from the beginning. This theory is growing more and more popular. (Keep in mind, though, that I'm summarizing from a work published in 1991, so I don't know yet where the trend has gone in the past decade and a half.)

Which of these theories you subscribe to determines whether or not you can refer to the "onset" of bilingualism at a certain age. Hoffmann cautions that it is important to keep in mind that it's not always possible to identify when a child becomes aware of the existence of two separate languages and that children don't name the language at first (this is too abstract a concept for them). Code-switching and mixing languages tends to subside with the child's awareness of the separateness of the languages.

Hoffmann lists these cues as signals that the child is aware of the two languages:
· He uses the languages in appropriate contexts.
· He knows who speaks which language in his circle.
· He translates spontaneously for his parents.
· He doesn't like when one parent uses the other parent's dominant language. (84)

These points, of course, raise the question of how exactly does the child grow aware of the fact that he's hearing two languages? While some theories exist--growing familiarity with both languages, social experiences, modeling the adults he encounters--basically there is no certain answer to this question. (85-6)

I'll conclude this part of the book review with some information that ties into the next few chapters, about features of bilingual speech:

The task of processing the languages he hears is more complex for the bilingual child, because "a larger number of features have to be recognized and produced, and this bigger cognitive load may well lead to a later onset of speech production or even an initial period of some confusion" (57). The "semantic load" is larger for them, as assigning two different labels to each concept requires more effort (65). On the other hand, other studies have found no difference between monolingual and bilingual kids' cognitive processes. Hoffmann points out that both sets of children are prone to overextension of meaning when learning to speak, like where "car" refers to any vehicle or "doggie" is any four-legged animal. (60-1) Both monolingual and bilingual children also make the same kinds of grammatical errors, which may persist longer for the latter group (plurals, for example). (68-9)

I'd like to hear from readers--do you agree with the research cited here? Do you think kids have it easier or harder than adults when learning second languages? Do the "pros" outweigh the "cons" when it comes to teaching a child a second language? Click on "comments" to share your thoughts!

Click here for part 3 of this review.


  1. Hi Sarah,
    Hmm, interesting. I had always subscribed to the idea that it's easier for children to learn a foreign language than adults, too, and I've never heard of any dispute to that. It's good to question assumptions, eh :)
    Whether it is naturally "easier" for children to learn or not, I don't really know, but I still tend to hang on the side that it's in the interest of children to introduce children to languages earlier for a number of reasons. The same reasons that one might relate to the reasons we give for saying "it's easier for children to learn languages that for adults." For one, children are in the process of learning one language and whatever metalinguistic mechanications their brains are going through would transfer, it seems to me, very fluidly for a second. Children are acquiring so much vocabulary so quickly, they may well be able to learn vocabulary for 2 languages as well as one. Imagine, as adults, trying to learn and begin using 15 new words a day and using them all for the rest of our lives. Of course, children will be learning more basic, everyday words, and adults, more likely, more complex words that wouldn't be used in everyday conversation.

    In addition, adults often come with preconceptions, attitudes, and fears, and preferred learning styles (which goes right along with the variables the researcher listed) and often know they can "get away" with not necessarily learning the new language; children, at least, in a more natural context, are learning as a means of "survival," if you care for the term.
    Pardon this rambling. I'm not exactly thinking through very well, but these are my initial ideas.

  2. Amy, thanks for responding! I agree that we should take advantage of how quickly children acquire vocabulary and try to teach them a second language while they're still young. On the other hand, being around my nephew is showing me exactly how much input the child needs before he'll be able to say anything in any language. (He's almost crawling now, but won't be talking for a while.) At least when students walk out of my first-year French class they can greet each other and respond appropriately after only 50 minutes of exposure.