Childhood Second Language Learning and Subtractive Bilingualism
During the past five decades, the phenomenon of understanding how language is acquired has intrigued historians, theorists and scholars alike. Although language learning can occur at many different stages in one's lifetime, the vast bulk of the research has focused on children who grow up learning one language in the home (L1), while simultaneously learning the second language (L2), usually as a result of schooling. One of the main issues addressed most frequently is whether bilingual children are able to differentiate and keep the linguistic systems of their two languages apart from each other in the context of simultaneous acquisition (Bolonyai, 1998). Additional research has pointed out that young bilingual children may not maintain their languages balanced and intact because the bilingual development does not occur in a socially stable environment. This perspective theorizes that bilingual acquisition may result in various types and degrees of bilingualism depending on the social context in which the two languages are acquired and used. This paper will evaluate four such studies that deal with the linguistic development of bilingual individuals.
Bilingual language acquisition is worthy of attention for practical, clinical and theoretical reasons. In addition to merely promoting full normal development and treating pathological development, an understanding of language acquisition is important due to the fact that bilingual children comprise a majority of the population, an amount which is steadily increasing. Research in these areas is lacking, and as a result, there exists little theoretical understanding of the manner in which two languages are acquired simultaneously and the resulting affects. Such research also allows for an examination of the manner in which the human brain functions in regard to language learning and simultaneous language acquisition. Thus, research is needed to uncover the facts and reconcile general theories of acquisition with the facts (Genesee, 2001).
This topic is also worthy of attention because bilingual children may either master one language over the other, resulting in an imbalanced language competency, or may not master either language, and become linguistically incompetent as a result of the simultaneous acquisition of two languages. As the analysis of the four articles indicates, the knowledge of two or more languages in early childhood does not contribute to language deficiency or deficient intellectual development. Such research would no doubt assist parents and the educational system in making decisions regarding which language to raise their children speaking, or whether to preserve their native language by teaching the children two languages.
Although both theory and research on learning and instruction have advanced in recent years, only a small share of this work specifically addresses the educational needs of the increasingly diverse student population. Additionally, the most of the literature in this area focuses on children in elementary or secondary school, not the growing share of children whose first experience with school occurs at 3 or 4 years of age. Many suggestions for research have been made, however more studies must be conducted to obtain a truly thorough understanding. Such research is extremely important, because children whose home backgrounds do not correspond to the norms, expectations, and language of their schools negotiate two, sometimes more cultures on a daily basis. These children can serve as translators for their family, their neighbors, and their teachers and classmates. Finally, these studies are worthy of attention due to the fact that only rarely bilingual children are studied in more than one context.
Bolonyai (1998) argued that structural processes in language contact are operating at and determined by abstract levels of lexical structure; these levels include lexical-conceptual structure, predicate-argument structure, and morphological patterns of such structure. Bolonyai examined the structural effects of intensive language contact on one bilingual child's language development in an L2-dominant environment through the interpretation of prevalent structural processes, changes and the effects of bilingual contact were interpreted. Bolonyai collected data at three different points over one and a half years at various ages. The children were recorded in naturalistic settings such as dinner conversations, playing, and discussing daily events. Bolonyai also observed which individuals the children appeared to conversate the most with.
Bolonyai described three stages: 1) two years after initial contact with English, both languages remained separated, 2) code-switching is increased and s shift toward English as the matrix language begins in mixed utterances, and 3) a further increase in code switching (Bolonyai, 1998). Bolonyai concluded that such data revealed both convergence and a matrix language turnover. The bilingual subject demonstrated a greater effort to use the L2, but since her proficiency did not keep up, her performance was marked by a compromise strategy of converging structures (Bolonyai, 1998). Bolonyai (1998) provided empirical data as evidence that parts of lexical structure can be split and recombined into a matrix language to project surface structures for bilingual speech. In the Bolonyai study, a child that had spent three years in a L2 dominant environment showed a preference for the L2 language. Even after being placed in a L1 environment, the L1 became the favored language, however L2 found its way in to the L1 structure anyway. Bolonyai (1998) argued that structures and stages of bilingual development occurred at the same time as code switching was present. Over time, the dominance of L2 became more established; Bolonyai concluded that code switching functioned as an agent of change, introducing the lexical structure of L1 into L2.
The research by Bolonyai examined the structural repercussions of intensive language contact in bilingual child language development and argued for an alternative analysis of mechanisms and outcomes of bilingual contact. However, further research drawing on empirical data from situations of intensive language contact is needed to examine the ways in which levels of abstract lexical structure organized cross-linguistically (Bolonyai, 1998). One of the major drawbacks to this study is that one only subject and family were studied. Other research that includes more subjects from various countries should be implemented to obtain clearer more definite results and thus, a better understanding. In the Bolonyai study, the research method was suitable, however, there just were not enough subjects examined.
In recent years, there has been much research conducted on the similarities and differences in the loss of grammatical systems across individual languages. Research by Polinsky (1995) examined these structural consequences of language attrition and the correspondences between language-particular and cross-linguistic phenomena under circumstances of severe attrition. The notion of language attrition refers to two related phenomena: 1) first language loss as a result of the forgetting of the language most commonly due to the influence of another dominant language, and 2) the process whereby a given grammar system undergoes a significant reduction when it is passed from one generation to the next (Polinsky, 1995). Polinsky's research contrasted six languages as spoken by terminal speakers, comparing the manner in which variants of the same language were used as a dominant language or as a secondary language to a dominant language. Polinsky used this method to determine precisely which linguistic features arise under limited communication and thus are characteristic of language disappearance.
The languages studied by Polinsky were Eastern Armenian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Kabardian or Circassian, and Tamil; the study subjects that did not speak such languages as their primary language showed significant attrition and a restructuring of their grammatical systems, or the use of a "reduced" language. Each terminal speaker was given three tasks: 1) to translate sentences form the primary language into the reduced language, 2) to judge the grammaticality of isolated sentences, 3) to produce a spontaneous narrative, and 4) conduct a dialogue with the investigator (Polinsky, 1995). Terminal speakers used the reduced language only if prompted to do so and as a second choice. Terminal speakers had great difficulty in translating syntactic structures and often accepted constructions which were ungrammatical in the full language.
In the Polinsky (1995) study, differences between speakers raised the question of the influence of the dominant language on the pattern of language loss.
Polinsky (1995) concluded that the attrition of individual language characteristics applies differentially to discrete language items and also varies from one terminal speaker to another. The study also found a positive correlation between the loss of various syntactic characteristics and lexical loss, an important correlation in language acquisition studies, where lexical and grammatical maturity also correlate (Polinsky, 1995). Finally, Polinsky observed that the frequent pausing observed in speech under attrition is determined by difficulties in lexical retrieval, rather than structural features.
The research by Polinsky could have been improved by broadening the scope of the languages chosen to examine. One suggestion would be to choose languages that were a little more mainstream and common, such as Spanish, where there exists a huge population of bilingual individuals. Polinsky's conclusion that frequent pausing was determined by lexical retrieval is an area that could be studied more in-depth. This conclusion provides a starting point for many other research studies that could examine this theory. Other simpler, more commonplace languages could be examined in…
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