Effect of Growing Up in a Bilingual Household

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#The cognitive process of learning language is complex. A main part of learning spoken and written language is something called phonological awareness (Chen, 2004) (Chiappe, 2007) which describes the individual's cognition of the fact that words are made up of multiple sound units. Another large part of language learning is orthographic awareness – the understanding of language based on its written construction (Liow, 2006). This applies to both spelling and syntax. There is debate over whether growing up in a bilingual environment has positive or negative effects on children's phonological and orthographic awareness, and thus their ability to learn to read and speak fluently. There is much evidence that metalinguistic awareness, that is understanding of the overarching syntactic principles of language, is greater in children who are bilingual (Chen, 2004). Hammer and Miccio point out that the process of learning to read begins long before the commencement of formal instruction in school. This is due to the "language and literacy events" that children are exposed to at home and in the environment (Hammer, 2006). Being exposed to an environment with multiple languages would certainly have an influence on one's phonological development. However, there is also evidence that lower socioeconomic status has a significant impact on this process as well, and can negate the positive effects of growing up in a bilingual environment (Hammer, 2006; Liow, 2006). A study by Chen et al. that found that phonological awareness was greater in children who spoke Cantonese Chinese at home and later learned Mandarin Chinese in school as opposed to those children who spoke Mandarin both at home and in school. Chinese is a distinct language in that two words whose pronunciation is identical can have two different meanings because of differences in the cadence of spoken tones. While Mandarin Chinese has four types of tones, Cantonese has as many as nine (Chen, 2004). The authors found that students whose first language was the Cantonese dialect (which differs so significantly from the Mandarin that it is virtually unintelligible to a Mandarin speaker) had a more developed phonological awareness during early learning, but that the differences were not significant in later childhood. The authors concluded that in the early stages of language learning, the bilingual children were at a significant advantage, but that later on the monolingual children "caught up" with the bilingual children on measures of phonological awareness. A study by Liow and Lau discussed the fact that, when the two languages are very dissimilar, being bilingual may not aid phonemic awareness, and may even hinder it. This depends on the structure of the languages, on the school programs, and the socioeconomic status of the families (Liow, 2006). This study found that students who were either bilingual English-Mandarin or English-Malay speakers often had problems with orthographic awareness. The authors hypothesized that the influence of a first language other than English at home cause the children to have "inefficient processing in English" (Liow, 2006). One striking difference between these two studies is that the two languages spoken by the test subjects were vastly different in structure. There is much evidence that bilingual children from low-income families can have even lower letter identification scores than monolingual children. A study by the Department of Health and Human Services conducted in 2003 found that preschool children who were English second-language-learners were tested on letter recognition abilities and found to be below the national norm in both English and Spanish (their first language). Subsequently, these children did not gain as many letters as did children who were monolingual English speakers, throughout the course of the year. There are clearly many factors influencing the development of phonological, orthographic, and...
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