A comparison of the bilingual and the multicompetent|
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A comparison of the bilingual and the multicompetent
Previously, monolingualism was seen as the norm and the natural case of language development and consequently, bilingualism was devaluated (Meisel, 2004: 91). Today, however, this belief has changed and researchers point to the many advantages of bilingualism. Still, not all are provided with the opportunity to become a bilingual. Instead, many monolinguals learn a second language. Nevertheless, one might wonder whether there are differences and similarities between being bilingual and being monolingual knowing a second language. This assignment aims to investigate the concept of bilingualism by looking at similarities and differences between having two first languages (L1), and one first language and one second language (L2). Additionally, it will be argued that there is a continuum from simultaneous bilingual acquisition, through successive bilingual acquisition, to child and adult L2 acquisition, a continuum which presents definition challenges to the distinction between a bilingual and a multicompetent. Both a bilingual and a multicompetent each know two languages, including their L1s. First, according to Meisel, L1 acquisition is qualitatively similar for a bilingual and a monolingual (who is not multicompetent at this point) in that they proceed through the same developmental sequences and achieve the same grammatical competence in their respective L1s (2004: 94, 95). In fact, Meisel claims that both of the L1s of a bilingual are acquired in equal manners as the L1 of a monolingual. Furthermore, the acquisition rates will not diverge from each other either, even though the bilingual may start to speak later than the monolingual, but still within what counts as normal range (Ibid: 95, 100). Still, the development is not completely equal since bilingual L1 acquisition can show cross-linguistic influences (more on this later in the assignment), something which the monolingual cannot (Ibid: 101). Even if both the bilingual and the multicompetent are equipped with two languages each, each of the language pairs can be acquired in different ways in that a bilingual can acquire the L1s simultaneously soon after birth, and the multicompetent can acquire his/her L2 several years after (s)he has acquired the L1 (thus, becoming multicompetent). One of the differences between a multicompetent and a bilingual is that the former has an L2. L2 acquisition differs from L1 acquisition in that the initial state and the early developmental stages are different, the course of L2 acquisition varies among individuals (unlike for L1 acquisition where the course is more or less equal to all learners), and there are unequal levels of preexisting language knowledge between L1 acquisition and L2 acquisition (Meisel, 2004: 106, 107, 109). The latter point is crucial in that the L1 can be used as an aid to acquire an L2, such as through transfer. Obviously, a person acquiring an L1 does not have any preexisting language knowledge to rely on. Moreover, as opposed to L1 acquisition where both the multicompetent and the bilingual ultimately will reach native competence in the L1 grammar, this result will not be attainable for an adult learning an L2 (Ibid: 107). Consequently, the levels of proficiency will differ between the bilingual and the multicompetent in that the latter will reach native competence in only one of his/her languages. However, this does not necessarily have to be a problem since the L2 acquisition still may be successful in that the learner reaches a highly proficient level, and since the need for ultimate attainment may not be there as this is not a prerequisite for communication. In other words, both a bilingual and a multicompetent are capable of communicating in two languages, and both may achieve high total linguistic competence. Input is fundamental for both L1 and L2 acquisition and thus relevant for both the bilingual and the multicompetent. In fact, input from a certain age is necessary to acquire native competence in a language (Ibid: 105). What more is, input is also conclusive to L2 acquisition (Brown, 2007: 293). However, in L1 acquisition input will be accessed naturally through the environment (the language the child hears from his/her parents or from others in the surroundings). For L2 acquisition, on the other hand, input may be less accessible, depending on the situation in which the L2 is acquired. For a person moving to a new country, input of the new language will naturally be more accessible than, for instance, for an adult taking L2 classes in their L1 country. Like for the first person in this example, acquisition of a new language can happen just by listening, without any explicit instruction, which supports the claim that input is crucial. (cf. Ibid: 291). Relevant to the issue of input is also the fact that both the bilingual and the multicompetent can lose one of their languages if they never use them or never are exposed to them (Dahl, 2013). Age is one the main differences between a bilingual and a multicompetent, and also this aspect is related to the acquisition processes. According to Meisel, there is an age limit to bilingualism. Such an age limit is relevant in this case since if the child starts to learn a language after this limit, then the new language will turn into an L2 instead of L1 (cf. Meisel, 2004: 103, 104). Age is thus one of the reasons why the multicompetent reaches a different proficiency level in his/her L2 compared to that of the L1, a difference accounted for by the critical period hypothesis. Some argue that after a certain age, humans lose access to the the language-making capacity to learn a native language because of neuronal maturation (Ibid: 103). “[N]ative competence cannot be attained by mere exposure if the onset of acquisition happens after a certain age” (Ibid: 104). This means that if exposure to a new language starts after the critical period, then the course of acquisition and the grammatical knowledge ultimately acquired will differ from that of L1 acquisition. Consequently, the bilingual will reach native competence in both L1s since they are acquired before the critical period, but the multicompetent will not reach native competence (rather native-like competence) in his/her L2. So in rough terms, the critical period will comprise the main distinction between a bilingual and a multicompetent. A problem to this distinction appears when the bilingual acquires the L1s successively, thus at different ages (see the paragraph below). In addition to the crucial aspect of age, there are other circumstances that differentiate the bilingual and the multicompetent as well. For instance, the bilingual acquires both languages quite naturally and unconsciously. The bilingual may live in a bilingual community, or grow up in an immigrant family that speaks one language, whereas the surroundings belong to the second language. The multilingual, on the other hand, may also acquire both the L1 and the L2, but in many cases the L2 will be learned through instruction. So for a bilingual, having two languages is an unconscious result of the circumstances, whereas the multicompetent may have chosen to learn or at least more consciously acquired the second language. For that reason, the motivation behind the language acquisition will also be of a different kind. Since the multicompetent may have chosen to learn the L2, (s)he will use other learning strategies than those of the bilingual (cf. Ibid: 107, 108). Nevertheless, this depends on the age of acquisition and to which extent the learner is able to be conscious about his/her acquisition or learning. Another similarity between the bilingual and the multicompetent is that, in most cases, neither of the two will perform equally in both of the languages they know (cf. Ibid: 93). Both the bilingual and the multicompetent will adjust their use of the two languages to various situations, for different purposes, and with different addressees. For instance, the bilingual will rarely use both of his/her L1s in completely equal manners, since one language may be used in the family and the other among friends. The multicompetent, on the other hand, will rely mostly on his/her L1 and then turn to the L2 when it is needed, such as when (s)he is talking to foreigners. Besides, if a multicompetent person is highly proficient in the L2, his/her use of the L1 and the L2 will most likely not be equal anyways, since the kind of language needed will vary. However, in countries like Norway, where the L2 proficiency level among people is generally high, people tend to use their L2 even if it is not necessary. In general though, there will be an imbalance between the two languages of both the bilingual and the multicompetent. An aspect that involves both similarities and differences between the bilingual and the multicompetent is the one of linguistic systems, influence and mixing. Evidence suggests that bilinguals are provided with two separate linguistic systems for each of the L1s and that they learn to differentiate these quite early in life (Meisel, 2004: 100, 110). In this way, bilingualism and multicompetence both include having two separate language systems. These two systems may influence each other and be mixed in various ways and degrees. For the bilingual, possible cross-linguistic influences in the initial developmental phases may lead to transfer, acceleration and delay of specific grammatical constructions, all interdependent developments between the two L1s (Ibid: 101, 103, 111). As an example, for the bilingual, an acquired structure in one of the L1s can accelerate the acquisition of the similar structure in the other L1. This is supported by the study by Gawlitzek-Maiwald and Tracy, of which they developed the Bilingual Bootstrapping Hypothesis. In cases where the native languages develop at different paces, what is acquired in one language can boost the acquirement of the same aspect in the other language (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy, 1996: 903). For a multicompetent, though, the influence between languages will be restricted to transfer (Meisel, 2004: 101). The multicompetent will for obvious reasons not experience cross-linguistic influence when acquiring the L1, but in an increasingly globalized world where knowing an L2 is quite common, the L1 will influence the L2, which in fact can influence the L1 (depending on the L2 proficiency) (Brown, 2007: 254, 263). For instance, young people in Norway often mix Norwegian and English when both writing and talking, possibly as a result of the globalization. Many bilinguals also tend to mix their L1s, but in a systematic fashion, governed by sociolinguistic variables and grammatical properties of the elements switched (Meisel, 2004: 96). The skill of this appropriate mixing, or code switching, is acquired around the age of two (Ibid: 97). Gawlitzek-Maiwald and Tracy found that such mixing of languages does not imply deficit or linguistic confusion, but reflects the bilingual’s competences in both languages (1996: 920). Meisel claims that by being able to choose between two native languages, the bilingual is provided with “additional communicative means” (2004: 93). Still, the multicompetent will also have access to this possibility, even though in a slightly different manner. Obviously, (s)he cannot mix languages in the initial L1 acquisition phase as (s)he does not have an additional language to mix with, but as soon as (s)he reaches a certain L2 proficiency level (s)he will be capable of mixing his/her L1 and L2 in a more or less conscious way. One can question whether this will be the same as code switching though, and whether there is a difference in the consciousness behind this mixing for the bilingual and the multicompetent. Research shows that mental capacities and cognitive processes are influenced by and benefit from when a person is keeping the two systems in the mind at the same time. For instance, it is claimed that bilinguals are “more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view”, they are often better at multitasking and focusing their attention to something, they have enhanced cognitive control, and they are earlier readers and better at learning new languages than monolinguals (University of Edinburgh, 2008a and 2008b; Dreifus, 2011; Connelly, 2007). What more is, research done by the cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok, suggests that that since the executive control system in a bilingual, a cognitive system in the brain, regularly choses between the two L1s, the bilingual’s brain works in additional ways compared to those of the monolingual. Since the bilingual does this regularly, her system is more efficient than the one of the monolingual (Dreifus, 2011). Bialystok also found that “regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms” (Ibid). What is crucial here is that the languages have to be used all the time, and not occasionally. Similar findings appeared in a Canadian study which shows that bilingualism, or “lifelong use of two languages”, can delay the onset of symptoms of dementia (Connelly, 2007). Here, one may question whether this implies that same is true for the multicompetent if (s)he uses his/her L2 at a highly proficient level on a daily use. Altogether, there are many mental advantages to bilingualism due to the fact that the brain has to deal with two language systems at the same time. As seen in this assignment, there are several aspects of this two system issue that are similar between bilinguals and multicompetent persons. The question is whether these similarities are sufficient for the mentioned mental advantages to be valid for both the bilingual and the multicompetent, or whether these advantages are depending on factors that cannot be acquired through anything but early bilingual acquisition. The above-mentioned issues have one feature in common in that their outcome is dependent upon the age at which the language acquisition starts. A challenge to making a distinction between a bilingual and a multicompetent is the fact that bilingualism can be acquired in different ways, and an L2 can be acquired at a young age. Bilingualism can be subcategorized into simultaneous and successive bilingualism. Simultaneous bilingual acquisition, when the child is acquiring two languages simultaneously soon after birth, clearly involves acquiring two L1s (Meisel, 2004: 103). Whether the two languages will turn into L1s when they are acquired one after the other, successive bilingual acquisition, is a more controversial issue (Ibid.). The reason for this is that the age of acquisition will vary between the two L1s, and this will have certain implications for the development (cf. the critical period mentioned earlier). Meisel argues that a child can reach native competence as long as the acquisition process (exposure to a language) begins before the offset phase of the critical period, which starts at the age of five (Ibid: 104, 105). Some argue that such cases will result in competence differences between the two L1s, but as mentioned earlier even simultaneous bilingual acquisition will most likely end up in unbalanced L1 competences. After this, between the age of five and ten, acquisition of a new language will be viewed as child L2 acquisition (Ibid: 106). Children in Norway who start learning English in school at the age of five or six will therefore be an example of child L2 acquisition. If the exposure to a language, and thus the acquisition process begins after the age of ten, Meisel argues that it is an instance of adult L2 learning (Ibid). Hence, there is a sort of continuum of dual language competence; from simultaneous bilingual acquisition, to successive bilingual acquisition, to child L2 acquisition, and finally, adult L2 acquisition/learning, - and they all depend on the age of acquisition. This is relevant to the comparison of a bilingual and a multicompetent person because it illustrates that there are fine lines between the four situations, something which challenges the comparison task. One may wonder whether developmental sequences experienced in successive bilingual acquisition may start deviating from normal L1 acquisition if the process begins close to the age of five. Additionally, one might question to which extent the successive bilingual will execute cross-linguistic influence and code switching if one L1 is already relatively acquired when the second L1 acquisition process begins. Setting various age limits to the various categories is controversial, however, if it includes saying that a child acquiring a second language from the age of four and a half will become a successive bilingual, whereas a child acquiring a second language from the age of five and a half will become a multicompetent (with an L1 and L2). In relation to this, it is also disputable whether the developmental sequences of the latter child will be that different from those of the former child. One can also question whether a successive bilingual acquiring his/her second L1 from the age of four will use the preexisting language knowledge from the first L1 in acquiring the second. Obviously, such harshly fixed lines cannot be drawn, so the ages stated in the different theories are only relative. Additionally, as discussed in the paragraph about mental advantages, it is tempting to believe that these advantages are valid for a multicompetent too, but once again age of acquisition may be conclusive. The question is, nevertheless, whether a successive bilingual will experience the same advantages as a simultaneous bilingual, and whether a person who has acquired an L2 as a child has access to the same advantages. All these questions provide suggestions for future research. Moreover, making generalizations about the differences and similarities between a bilingual and a multicompetent is challenging, as it is hard to make generalizations and definitions about language acquisition per se. To conclude, this assignment has presented similarities and differences between having two L1s, and having one L1 and one L2. This comparison has investigated the issues of L1 and L2 acquisition processes, the role of input and age, circumstances such as the consciousness of the acquisition, the imbalance between two languages, the influence and mixing of languages, and the mental advantages to knowing two language systems. Additionally, the continuum of dual language competences has been proposed, in addition to the definition challenges in this continuum. In general though, age is seen to be a conclusive factor for both the bilingual and the multicompetent, and also the main difference between these. Obviously, there are individual differences to these aspects, and these may show results that deviate from what has been presented in this paper. Furthermore, as seen in this assignment, both situations are positive and include various advantages. For the future, though, more research is needed on the contrasts between bilingual L1 acquisition and child L2 acquisition, in addition to contrastive research on the mental advantages of bilingualism and multicompetence.
Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Pearson Education, Inc. Connelly, K. (2007, January 12). Bilingualism Has Protective Effect In Delaying Onset Of Dementia By Four Years, Canadian Study Shows. Retrieved May 7th, 2013, from Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/60646.php Dahl, A. (2013, April 19th). What is bilingualism? Lecture in ENG2153 - First and Second Language Acquisition. Trondheim: NTNU. Dreifus, C. (2011, May 30). The Bilingual Advantage. Retrieved May 7, 2013, from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/science/31conversation.html?_r=2& Gawlitzek-Maiwald, I., & Tracy, R. (1996, Januar). Bilingual bootstrapping. (J. Auwera, Ed.) Linguistics (5), 901-926. Retrieved May 3rd, 2013, from Linguistics: http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/ling.1996.34.issue-5/ling.19126.96.36.1991/ling.19188.8.131.521.xml Meisel, J. M. (2004). The Bilingual Child. In T. K. Bhatia, & R. W. C., The Handbook of Bilingualism (p. 884). Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow & Co. University of Edinburgh. (2008a). Children benefit from bilingualism - Advice and information on child bilingualism based on current language research. Retrieved May 1st, 2013, from Bilingualism Matters: http://www.bilingualism-matters.org.uk/ University of Edinburgh. (2008b). Children benefit from bilingualism - Common questions. Retrieved May 1st, 2013, from Bilingualism Matters: http://www.bilingualism-matters.org.uk/common-questions/
[ 1 ]. Due to the length of the assignment, this paper will only focus on bilingualism (having two native languages) and not multilingualism (having more than two native languages). Still, it is worth mentioning that according to Meisel’s definition bilingualism may signify having more than two native languages (2007: 91). [ 2 ]. For this assignment’s purpose, the term multicompetent will be used to signify a monolingual knowing and L2. The term was used in a lecture in ENG2153. [ 3 ]. Obviously, there are individual difference related to the acquisition process, but these are not taken into account here. [ 4 ]. For him the age limit is from birth or soon afterwards, which means that the child has to start acquiring a language at this point to be able to reach native competence. This assignment will however not discuss whether this is the actual limit or whether it occurs later. [ 5 ]. At exactly which age is still a controversial issue (cf. Meisel, 2004: 104).