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In his seminal work, Second-Language Acquisition in Childhood, McLaughlin (1985) reports that early research into language acquisition by preschool children suggested that interference between languages is not as inevitable or universal as was once believed. "Contrastive analysis, in its traditional form, was not able to account for the vast majority of errors that second-language learners made; in fact, learners from quite different language backgrounds appeared to make the same types of mistakes in the target language," he adds (McLaughlin, 1985, p. 14).
Since these early studies into language acquisition, other studies have shown that transfer from the first language does take place in the speech of children from certain first-language backgrounds and at certain times during the learning process. Therefore, McLaughlin cautions that, "It is an exaggeration to say that transfer from the first language is minimal and unimportant. The acquisition of phonological, syntactic, and morphological structures in a second language involves an interplay of both developmental and transfer factors. Transfer errors do occur and are extremely interesting for the researcher because of what they reveal about the learner's strategies" (p. 14). Nevertheless, the learner's first language tends to influence second-language acquisition in less direct and more restricted ways than it was once believed: "The evidence suggests that preschool children approach the task of second-language learning in much the same way they approached the task of learning their first language. Some authors speak of the reactivation of children's facility for language acquisition or of a creative construction process" (McLaughlin, 1985, p. 14).
A recent analysis of the linguistic adaptations that speakers make when transferring Spanish elements into the modern speech of inhabitants of Easter Island, Chile (known as Rapanui) by Makihara (2001) examined Spanish transfers and the mechanisms of adaptation at the levels of phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse. This study included a discussion of the phonological adaptation; application of Rapanui-bound morphemes; possessive class assignment; kin and emotion semantic fields; syntactic category crossing; the introduction of a modal construction of obligation, coordinating conjunctions, and an adverb of negation; and the use of Spanish elements as discourse markers and the indexicality they make possible. This author reports that, "Among lexical items, nouns are most transferable. Synchronically, the transferred Spanish elements are integrated through a combination of phonological, morphological, and syntactic means. Diachronically, they may go through a process of nativization requiring a certain amount of time to be accepted as part of the 'native' lexicon and grammar" (p. 191).
Children vs. Adult Code Switching.
All children are unique, of course, and the manner in which they go about acquiring first or second languages differs from individual to individual, just as with adults; however, there are some commonalties that exist that can provide some valuable insights into the general processes that are taking place. In this regard, McLaughlin (1985) advises that, "Children vary greatly in language learning -- whether it be a question of a first or a second language" (pp. 15-6). Early studies of language acquisition by children showed surprised researchers when they determined that children's language was both orderly and systematic. According to Bialystok and Hakuta (1994), "Some of this they discovered by analyzing the productions of children that, by adult standards, would be considered errors. But the errors clearly revealed that the children were actively formulating rules rather than behaving like parrots" (p. 29). In fact, as Bakker emphasizes, "There are no objective criteria to decide what is complex and what is simple. All natural languages are learned without effort by children" (1997, p. 24).
A large number of studies have investigated the order in which grammatical inflections were acquired by children, which was also investigated in first-language learners. By and large, this line of investigation showed that learners of a second language followed a fairly common sequence of acquisition (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994). This finding held true for child and adult learners as well as for a variety of native languages and situations of language learning. To be sure, there were anomalies: for example, the English articles a and the continued to present problems for native speakers of many Asian languages (which do not have articles); likewise plurals and number agreement for speakers of Japanese, which does not have these grammatical rules; the findings, though, were consistent in showing that commonalities in second-language learning were attributable to factors that transcended native language characteristics: "Second-language learning was not a process of modifying what you already knew to arrive at the second language. Instead, it was quite simply 'language learning,' a process of constructing a new system from all our available human resources" (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994, p. 31).
According to her recent analysis of discourse, interview, and observational data, Lam (2004) reports that a mixed-code variety of English is typically adopted and developed among young speakers and their peers around the globe to construct their relationships as bilingual speakers of English and Cantonese. "This language variety served to create a collective ethnic identity for these young people and allowed the girls to assume a new identity in speaking English that doesn't follow the social categories of English-speaking Americans vs. Cantonese-speaking Chinese in their local American context" (Lam, 2004, p. 44). According to Bialystok and Hakuta (1994), though, studies and empirical observations confirm that bilingual children and, of course, adults do not confuse their two languages. "Functionally, there seems to be some measure of differentiation early on, and this separation of languages by context, purpose, and interlocutor (conversational partner) is taken as evidence that the representation of the two languages in the mind must be distinct" (p. 115). Notwithstanding their level of proficiency, neither the first nor second language of bilingual speakers is precisely the same as either language for the respective monolingual groups (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994).
These authors emphasize as well that there are differences in both vocabulary and syntax that can account for such differences because the bilingual speaker's two languages have been conceptualized in a single representation and therefore have had the opportunity to influence each other (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994). According to these authors, "Bilingual speakers of French and English have different mental representations for both French and English from those of monolingual speakers of either language. In two languages represented by distinct systems, one would expect each language to stand as an independent structure, and the first language to be the same as its representation for a monolingual speaker of that language" (p. 114). Citing the findings by Green (1986) again, the authors also emphasize that transfer operates in both directions, and each language is influenced by the presence of the other (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994).
Other evidence supports this position as well. For example, code-switching is a common feature of bilingual speech; however, how can children shift between languages that were stored separately so easily? Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests bilingual children enjoy meralinguistic advantages over their monolingual peers. For example, according to the research by Bialystok and Hakuta (1994), "This means that bilingual children know more about language and have greater insight into its abstract structure. One could more easily explain a bilingual child's benefiting from enriched conceptions of language if the two languages were in close contact and influenced each other. Only a unified representation could achieve this" (p. 115).
The first possibility is illustrated in a representational model developed by Green (1986); this model is based on the notion that mental processes (e.g., the mental processes that find words to fit the speaker's ideas) can be both activated and inhibited. According to Bialystok and Hakuta, "The idea is simple but elegant. What is necessary is some kind of neurological switch, which Green calls the specifier, that has the responsibility of selecting which language is to be used. This system is so constructed that separate first- and second-language representations are attached to the same conceptual structure" (p. 116).
As a result, the conceptual system contains all of the meanings that the speaker knows and is the milieu in which active cognition, or conceptual processing, takes place. Producing or using language can occur in two separate ways:
1. In the simpler case, the linguistic representation initiates linguistic output directly, without going through an intermediate stage of conceptual processing. Words are produced directly from linguistic representations ("Alas, much linguistic output appears to be of this type!"); and,
2. In the more complex case, an idea passes from the specific language representation into the common conceptual system. From there, it must pass through the specifier to determine which language has the job of verbalizing the idea. The specifier sends out two messages -- an activation message to the language output center that has been selected for verbalization and an inhibition message to the language output center that is to remain mute (Bialystok & Hakuta, 1994, p. 116).
Therefore, code-switching, transfer, and interference occur when there is no inhibiting message. "The model works well in explaining how…[continue]
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