The Effects of Social Context on Bilingualism and Language Acquisition

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How does the social context affect the rate of language development?

Suppose we have two children. Child A is an American child in a Spanish-speaking environment. He lives with his parents, both of whom are of American roots trying to adjust and cope with a language unfamiliar to them. None of them have sufficient knowledge in Spanish to be able to converse effectively with their neighbors. Child B, on the other hand, is an American child living in an English-speaking environment. He, like Child A, also lives with his parents, who are also both English-speaking and of American descent. Let us compare their situations, and figure out who will most likely be the first to acquire bilingualism.

Child A Child B
Within the household English English
Outside the householdSpanish English

How do we define the term ‘bilingualism’? Do we define bilingualism as the “native like control of two or more languages” (Bloomfield, 1933), or “the ability to use more than one language” (Mackey, 1962)? Or is it “the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language” (Haugen, 1953)? Indeed, a lot of definitions have been presented in the aim to finally give a concrete meaning to bilingualism. However, we will not dwell on definitions in this discussion, so it would probably be best if we would stick with the simplest definition of bilingualism for now, that bilingualism is being able to communicate effectively in the languages involved, this meaning that the speaker is able to use the languages involved effectively in everyday life.

Social context refers to the environment that a person was educated or lives in. This includes the culture, mode of interaction, and all outside factors within the environment. Let us go back to the problem presented above, that of Child A and Child B.

Child A is exposed to two languages on the average: English and Spanish. His exposure to English comes from his parents, and his exposure to the other language, Spanish, comes from the outside environment—the social context. Child B, on the other hand, is exposed to only one language: English. Inside the household and from the social context, the only language he gets exposure from is English. Now, who will most likely be a bilingual?

It is clear from the information above that Child A will most likely be the bilingual between the two children. How did this conclusion come to be?

In a study of language acquisition in children, linguist and researcher Werner Leopold documented the language acquisition process of his daughter Hildegard (Hakuta, 1986; Leopold, 1949). Hildegard, being the daughter of a German father, and an American mother of German descent, she was exposed to two languages all at once, with Leopold speaking only German at home and his wife Marguerite speaking only English.

Hildegard, from the very beginning, had a strong hold on her bilingualism. As time passed she learned how to use both of the languages very well, to the point that at a very young age she could identify each language separately and use them accordingly to her audience.

However, when Hildegard was five years and six months old, she showed an abrupt shift of her dominant language. During this time she and her family had just returned to the United States from a one-year visit to Germany, and when they returned, her language was almost completely German. The days that followed their return to the United States, her linguistic abilities in English faltered. She was more of a passive bilingual in English; she understood the language but was unable to express herself. However, a week after their return, Leopold had observed that Hildegard had gone back to her active bilingualism. She was able to chat continually in English as though her period of passive bilingualism had never existed. Nevertheless, although she had regained control of the English language,...
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