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Simultaneous and Successive Language Acquisition in the Development of Bilingualism in Children

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Simultaneous and Successive Language Acquisition in the Development of Bilingualism in Children


Dual language learning in the preschool years can occur either simultaneously or successively. Simultaneous language learning occurs when parents regularly use two languages with their child from the time of birth. On the contrary, successive learning occurs when children are exposed to and speak only one language at home during the first years of life, and then attend daycare or preschool programs in which another language is used. It is important to distinguish between these two forms of dual language acquisition before deciding to raise a bilingual child, as there may be differences with respect to their patterns and rate of development, and possibly even the ultimate level of proficiency in the second language. This paper attempts to show the processes involved in simultaneous and successive dual language learning in preschool children, with the ultimate goal of determining if one method is superior to the other.

The first part of the paper reviews some facts about simultaneous bilingual language development and the second part about successive bilingual language development. The two patterns are briefly compared in the third part of the paper.

Some Facts about Simultaneous Dual Language Learning

Simultaneous acquisition implies that the bilingual child learns two languages from birth in the same way and in the same order as a monolingual child, with the obvious difference that the bilingual child has to learn to distinguish between the two languages (Harding-Esch and & Riley, 2003, p. 54). Bilingualism in this situation occurs naturally. Researchers provide examples of similarities in development between bilinguals and monolinguals (Harding-Esch and & Riley, 2003, p.54; Pearson, 2008, p.246). Among them are the average age at which bilingual and monolingual children produce their first words (about 1 year), and also the tendency to start by articulating words with sounds that are easier to pronounce such as [p, b, t, d, m, n]. It has been noticed, however, that researchers are still debating whether both languages can be called truly first languages, but similarities between bilingual and monolingual language development seem to be far more striking than the differences.

There are two schools of thought regarding the separation of their two languages by bilingual children. There are those who believe that children go through an initial mixed stage and combine their languages into one unified system, while others believe that they keep both languages separate from the moment they start talking.

The most widely cited work about the initial single system development has been proposed by Volterra and Taeschner (1978) in their three-stage model of bilingual language development. The model is based on the principle that young simultaneous bilinguals reject cross-language synonyms in their earliest lexicons. The three stages are the following: 1. The child has only one lexical system comprising words from both languages.

2. Distinct lexical systems develop, but children still rely on one syntax for both languages.

3. Distinct grammatical systems develop, resulting in differentiation of two linguistic systems. For example, if a Russian/English child says: "It is a машина (car)", it can be taken as clear evidence that the child cannot yet differentiate between the two language systems.

The notion of the single system was put into doubt in the research conducted by the University of Miami and the University of Maryland, during which the vocabularies of 27 developing simultaneous bilinguals were recorded at different intervals (Pearson, Fernandez, and & Oller, 1995). Even if the study did not prove that the bilinguals' lexicons are composed of two independent systems at a very early age, Volterra and Taeschner's claim that young bilinguals reject cross-language synonyms was not upheld. Thus, using our example of a Russian/English child saying "It is a машина", it is possible to say that she has two distinct language systems, since the correct declension and word order is preserved, and the pronunciation is correct for both languages. Such mixing might indicate that the child simply does not know the English equivalent for the word "машина".

Both points of view imply that children who grow up learning two languages from birth usually go through a phase in which they mix their languages, which can create understandable fear among parents and educators. They are concerned that children's initial inability to differentiate between the two linguistic systems could result in mixing their two languages, significant delays in the rate of vocabulary acquisition, and possible deviations from developmental paths observed in monolingual language development. Examples of bilingual code-mixing and researchers' perspectives on code-mixing will be briefly discussed below.

First, the development of young bilinguals' sound system will be reviewed. Acquiring two languages means that that the child has to develop native proficiency in two phonetic systems simultaneously. Many caregivers report that their children often pronounce "wrong" sounds in at least one of their languages. For example, in Russian the last consonant in the word often becomes voiceless even if a voiced consonant is spelled. It could result in the English word "flies" being pronounced as [flais] instead of [flaiz]. However, such pronunciation does not mean that the child does not know this difference. An interesting experiment is described by B. Z. Pearson in her book "Raising a bilingual child" (2008, p.249).The experiment is based on the distinction that Catalan makes between the two [e] sounds which is roughly the difference between the vowels in "bait" and "bet". When Catalan monolinguals, Spanish monolinguals, and Catalan-Spanish bilinguals were tested on the difference at four months of age, they all reacted to the two sounds as different. At twelve months, however, only Catalan monolinguals and Catalan-Spanish bilinguals continued to tell them apart. Thus, this experiment suggests that simultaneous bilingual children could, indeed, start speaking two languages without foreign accents if their caregivers continued to maintain this initial advantage.

Grammatical interference and mixing in the speech of simultaneous bilinguals raises even greater concern among parents and educators,



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