It is common knowledge that all over the globe young children seem to effortlessly acquire two or more languages at one time. Yet some uphold the belief that children who are exposed to multiple languages too early (with the dividing line as to what is "too early" being a gray area) may experience developmental language delays and/or confusion. Scientific research has attempted to examine whether young bilinguals can ascertain that they are acquiring two separate and distinct languages early on. (Watson, 1996) We will examine the criteria for measuring early language development, the concepts associated with ascertaining a child's developmental progress, the research supporting the prevailing theories and the significant findings inherent in credible research in these areas.
Research and Analysis
The line of thought that resembles popular opinion about whether or not children should be raised bilingual from birth is called the "Bilingual Paradox." It is a paradox because there are conflicting contemporary theories about whether or not it is the preferred method of introducing two languages. While much research shows that, by several measures, children who are exposed to two languages simultaneously between the ages of zero and three achieve major milestones within the same timeframe and with similar results as monolinguals, the contemporary line of thought has been to teach a child one language early on, reserving the introduction of a second language for the later school years. The thinking associated with the latter opinion is that introducing two languages early on will confuse the child, or that the child will be disadvantaged in mastery of one or both languages. There are, however, steps parents can take early on based on proven research to give their child an advantage in learning language skills. Methodologies, tools, timing mechanisms and support strategies have been developed through testing and observation that aids children in successful and timely language development, specifically in the adoption of multiple languages.
Bilingual Deficit Hypothesis
One of the theories regarding bilingualism and its detrimental effects on children's language development is called the "Bilingual Deficit Hypothesis." According to this theory, being exposed to and learning two languages equally during language development requires more effort and causes more stress for children. Because of this, there is a fear that bilingualism delays children's initial production of the precursors to speech. One of the notions associated with this concept is the "babbling drift" hypothesis. According to this theory, when children begin to babble in their first two years of life, their sounds resemble the phonemes of their caregivers' language duality, without regard for substance. While some researchers have found predictable phonemic differences among babies of caregivers with different language backgrounds, others have found no evidence of acoustic differentiation among such babies. (Oller, et al., 408)
The Bilingual Deficit Hypothesis conveys the notion that children who are simultaneously exposed to two or more languages early on suffer language delays and confusion. Further, the theory assumes that these children suffer a disadvantage in lacking the mastery over one language in the same regard as a monolingual child. There are concerns over 'language mixing' and a lack of appropriate usage and development of syntax for each language. The Unitary Language System Hypothesis details a specific assumption about how early bilingual representation can cause developmental delay.
Unitary Language System Hypothesis
The 'unitary language system' hypothesis infers that, until the age of three, the child exposed to two languages has a single fused linguistic representation. This implies that a language delay is inherent in the need to sort out the two languages once the child is able to differentiate between them. The genesis for this line of thought was spawned by a study conducted in 1978 by Volterra & Taeschner. The study looked at bilinguals in the one word stage (one-year-olds) and noted that there were few semantically corresponding words across languages. The classic example used is: if a child uses the word "ball" in one language, he or she will not use the equivalent of ball in the second language to express the same idea, implying that the children are not using the duality of two languages for the same words at the same time. (Caputi, 1986)
Basically, the theory states that if the child already has a verbal concept in one language, they will not be motivated to express it using a second language until such time when they begin to recognize their use of two distinct languages. Volterra & Taeschner cite the example of one child who insisted that a hairpin was not a molletta (Italian) but a klammer (German). In Volterra & Taeschner's observations of three children, it was reported that they almost entirely lacked doublets (two words representing a single object or concept) until a seven-month period had elapsed. This contradicts Petitto's conclusion that the capacity to differentiate between two languages is established prior to first words. Volterra stated that once the seven-month period had passed, the children began using translation equivalents (a.k.a. doublets) in 30% to over 90% of all words. Since Volterra studied one-year-olds, the indication is that the children are well past the age of one when the production of translation equivalents is mature. (Dromi, 1987) The contradiction to Petitto's findings seem to be one of timing since the average monolingual first word is produced at approximately one year of age.
Clark's Principle of Contrast (1987) supports Volterra's concepts, and asserts that young bilinguals "reject cross-language synonyms in their earliest lexicons." Clark claims that, during the first stage of the development of their vocabulary, the child assumes each word has a separate and distinct meaning. Clark's theory states that the child will tend to accept the word from the language they tend to grasp the quickest, or at least until their word vocabulary reaches 150 words. The parent can be mindful from the outset about his or her own patterns of language usage and whether or not he or she tends to naturally favor one form of language expression over the other, as a child is like a sponge to the parent's influence.
Bilingual Advantage Hypothesis
The other prevailing popular theory, the "Bilingual Advantage Hypothesis," is that children raised in a bilingual environment have higher intellectual flexibility from the richer language input they are exposed to and therefore have an easier time producing speech sounds. (Oller, et al., 409) Evidence to varying degrees exists to support both theories.
According to the research of Kimbrough Oller, some of the fears about the detriment to children from early bilingual exposure may be allayed. (Oller, 1997) In Dr. Oller's observations of English and Spanish speaking children, he observed that bilinguals were no less intelligible than monolingual children, and in some cases were more intelligible. He further states that by the time bilinguals reach school age, they have a larger concept space and their vocabularies are at least as large, if not more diverse than monolinguals, giving them an advantage both socially and in communicating with a larger population.
Differentiated Language System Hypothesis
The 'differentiated language system' hypothesis challenges the unitary view. In this view, the language mixing occurs using regular grammatical patterns of use, and mirrors socio-linguistic factors. By socio-linguistic factors, we are referring to the child's surroundings and the child's tendency to mirror the language emphasis of their parents, or primary caregivers. Herein lies the crux of this premise: that the language mixing is not a result of biological overload, confusion or inability, but conversely a representation of the fact that the children are demonstrating distinct syntactical nuances at an early age. Evidence exists to suggest that children mirror the emphasis of their primary caregiver, whether it be a parent, grandparent, child care worker or sibling.
Earlier sources of empirical data on the two prevailing hypotheses were premised on studies beginning at eighteen months, which focused on multi-word combinations. By the age of eighteen months, early language milestones such as first word, first fifty words, and first two-word combinations have already occurred. More recent studies have examined these hypotheses from the perspective of infants and young children.
Four stages of vocal development have been identified as occurring within the first year of life. In the first two months, the phonation stage takes place, where infants produce quasi-vowels, which are verbal signals such as crying or laughing. The primitive articulation stage, occurring in months two and three, finds the infant producing gooing sounds. In the expansion stage, sounds form to produce full vowels and marginal babbling. In the canonical stage, infants produce consonant and vowel-like syllables in a rapid format transition. (Jusczyk, P.W. 1999) It is in the fourth (canonical) stage that parents can determine whether there is an indication of delay in speech development. It is important to recognize the stages of vocal development…