Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Ithaka Prize Finalist: Becoming Bilingual

by Catriona Ellis

A child exposed to two languages from birth and an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant will both be faced with the challenge and opportunity of becoming bilingual. Discuss the similarities and differences in the processes and outcomes of language learning for these two types of learner.[1]

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”[2] This statement perhaps epitomises all that meant by being truly bilingual: the subconscious understanding of all the quirks and nuances of a language, the appreciation for the history and culture of a tongue, and the realisation that speech in a country’s native language is the most powerful and precise method of communication for its inhabitants. Franz Fanon said, “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”[3] I believe that it is possible for almost anyone to achieve this, whether they are a child exposed to two languages from birth or an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant. It is true that there are many more differences than similarities in the processes of acquiring a second language for these two types of learner, but ultimately the outcomes are almost identical: the most significant difference could be in eventual pronunciation or accent.

Stephen Krashen’s[4] widely recognised theory of second language acquisition (SLA) details five hypotheses which each explain an aspect of SLA. One of these is the Input hypothesis, which states that, “the learner improves and progresses along the 'natural order' when he/she receives second language 'input' that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence.”[5] Thus, anyone wishing to become bilingual must be exposed to “‘comprehensible input’ that belongs to level ‘i+1’”[6], where they are currently at a level ‘i’. This relates to both types of learner with which I am concerned because on the surface, the process of SLA for an adult in a country where another language is dominant and a child exposed to two languages from birth are similar due to their equally immersive natures. Therefore, there should be no limit of i+1 level language for either learner and both should progress “along the ‘natural order’[7]”.

However, in reality the child is far more likely to be exposed to constant i+1 level language because, for them, all human communication will prove to be of i+1 standard due to the fact that they will generally only be communicating with older people. Whilst some of this language will be of too higher a level to be considered comprehensible[8] to the child, it is my opinion that there will still be no lack of i+1 input because the majority of people who converse with a child who has not yet acquired language tend to use simple language by default, which is the correct level of input to allow the child to progress naturally. This does not mean that the child will continue acquiring the second language (L2) and the adult stop, but simply that the child is less likely to have to search for the optimally comprehensible level of language input.

An adult attempting to acquire a second language (L2) may struggle socially if they wish to discourse with people of their own age because these communications will likely be at too high a level to be considered “comprehensible input”. Consequently, the adult will be exposed to i+2 or i+3 level language, which, according to Krashen, does not aid SLA. By way of solving this problem, the adult, in my opinion, has three options. Firstly, they can expose themselves to i+1 communications by talking with those who are themselves also undergoing SLA but have acquired slightly more language (native speakers of a younger age). However, this option is likely to be socially unsatisfying over an extended period of time because this group of people may only be 3 or 4 years old. Secondly they can ask adults whom they wish to talk with to use more simple language and structures although this may hinder adult conversation because of the constant need to over-simplify adult conversation topics. Alternatively, they can choose to seek formal instruction. Due to the potential problems with the first two options, adults tend to pick the final one: to attend formal instruction by way of language classes.

Through classes there is the potential to become bilingual, but I believe that we must observe Krashen’s Acquisition-Learning hypothesis: he states that there are “two independent systems of second language performance: 'the acquired system' and 'the learned system'.”[9] Krashen explains that, “the 'acquired system' or 'acquisition' is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language” whilst, “the "learned system" or "learning" is the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge 'about' the language.”[10] Therefore, I propose that once the adult seeks formal instruction, the processes of SLA for the two learners in question differ greatly because the child will undergo conventional child language acquisition (CLA) with both languages simultaneously whilst the adult will gain language through the learned system with the second language.

The child’s acquisition will likely be a more instinctive process managed over a shorter period of time, with the average child entering the holographic stage of language use at the age of 1 year, followed by two word utterances at 18 months and telegraphic speech at 2 years[11]. The child is not formally taught grammatical and social rules of language and so will regularly make mistakes and then later ‘virtuous errors’[12], which stem from over-application of a learned rule, and thus over-generalisation. For example, a child who may have accurately used the irregular past tense “I ran” during the holographic stage (when simply repeating what they hear) could begin to use the overgeneralised, “I runned” once progressing through the stages of CLA. For an adult in a language class such virtuous errors may be viewed as a regression. In children they are recognised as a progression on a conceptual level[13] because they can signify the end of the simple repetition phase of CLA, and the start of the child’s ability to subconsciously manipulate language for themselves. If the adult can overcome the notion that errors do not necessarily show regression, they are more likely to acquire L2 faster.

Once a sufficient level of L2 has been acquired by the child or adult to allow them to form phrases of their own in the L2 (at least telegraphic speech) Krashen’s ‘monitor’ and ‘affective filter’ may have influence over the SLA. According to Krashen, the ‘monitor’ is a part of the learning system and is used to plan, edit and correct language only when three conditions are met: “the second language learner has sufficient time at his/her disposal, he/she focuses on form or thinks about correctness, and he/she knows the rule.”[14] Any comprehensible output (or communication in the L2) is advantageous over silence, and so the role of the monitor should be minor. However, often with adults, the desire for ‘correctness’ can lead to an over-use of the monitor and thus little progression in SLA.

If the learner is a perfectionist or self-conscious, as is much more frequent with adults than children, they are likely to over-use the monitor and thus hinder their own acquisition. If the adult is able to move beyond their self-consciousness then the opportunity to proceed with SLA is greatly advanced. I found this to be true from personal experience when using my L2 abroad. At a younger age, I was too embarrassed to ask simple questions to native speakers such as “What time does this shop shut?” for fear of using incorrect grammar or having an experience I found awkward if not understood. However, as I have become more confident in my own ability I have also become able to overcome any apprehensions and speak assuredly in the L2 without consciously thinking about whether I am using the correct grammar. Thus, as my anxiety levels have dropped, my ‘monitor’ has also become less conscious, allowing me to produce more comprehensible output. Accordingly, I have advanced at a much faster rate with my SLA. Of course, it is still possible that children can be over-users, but, due to the grammatical emphasis of the monitor and the condition that the learner must actively “know the rule” (which children may inherently be aware of but will not have conscious knowledge of), it is far more likely in adults.

The Active Filter hypothesis helps to explain how the language acquisition proceeds, stating that “a number of ‘affective variables’ play a facilitative, but non-casual role in second language acquisition”[15]. I believe these factors, such as an individual’s levels of motivation, self-confidence and anxiety can actively impact and affect the speed of the process of SLA. If the learner has low levels of motivation and self-confidence and high levels of anxiety, the filter can become highly active and temporarily impede language acquisition. This seems far more likely to occur in adults than children: the latter treat the two languages that they are simultaneously exposed to in the same way, whilst the former may be embarrassed to be using a low level of language as opposed to the native level fluency of their mother tongue. Furthermore, adults may not be motivated enough to struggle to understand L2 adult conversation when they could simply converse with speakers of their L1 and not have to struggle.

Hence, I feel it is possible to conclude from my personal experience and from observing Krashen, that L2 learners have the potential to monitor and filter their own language output. When psychological factors intervene negatively, the learner can over-use both devices, sometimes consciously, and hinder SLA. When the learner is relaxed and confident, the monitor and filter play minor roles and the plethora of comprehensible output allows the learner to advance with SLA. The latter may be said to be more likely with young children due to a lack of societal pressures and so this stage of L2 acquisition is often more rapid with children. Nevertheless, I suggest that adults still hold the potential to correctly use the monitor and filter if they can overcome these social anxieties or if they never play a debilitating role in the first place.

The role of grammar learning in SLA is a widely disputed topic among linguists and language teachers and there are, accordingly, many distinct theories as to its importance. However, to me it is clear that grammar learning is of varying significance for a child exposed to two languages from birth and an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant. In CLA the process is, if we are to believe Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, inherent and instinctive owing to the presence of a Language Acquisition Device (LAD) in each child that he or she is born with[16]. This LAD helps develop language and allows a child to create “a set of rules about language as he hears language used around him”.[17] Thus, no formal grammar teaching is necessary, and all that is required for the child to learn the rules is enough comprehensible input in the target language (note the support this lends to Krashen’s Input hypothesis).

However, I believe that for many adults the notion of not academically learning the grammar of a language would seem contradictory to the acquisition of L2 and consequently most will strive to methodically learn the rules. According to Krashen, this grammar learning is not a part of SLA, but may be titled “language appreciation”[18] or linguistics. He states that unless the grammar is taught in the target language, the study of it is not useful for SLA. However, if the grammar is taught in the target language, it may prove helpful although only because it can be classed as ‘comprehensible input’. During a grammar class, two of Krashen’s main criteria for affective SLA will be fulfilled: firstly, the teacher will provide i+1 level language input for their students and secondly, the affective filter of the students will be low because they are not under pressure to produce spoken language, but merely to understand grammatical points. In this way, both the students and teacher are deceiving themselves by studying the grammar: “they believe that it is the subject matter itself, the study of grammar, that is responsible for the students’ progress, but in reality their progress is coming from the medium and not the message.”[19] Indeed the subject matter could be anything in the world and a similar improvement in language would be seen.

Accordingly, the process of learning grammar that is sought after by adults acquiring a second language and the process performed by children are very different, namely that the former is conscious and the latter unconscious. However, in considering my proposition that it is possible for both types of learner with which I am concerned to fully acquire L2, I suggest that, in reality, it is only ‘comprehensible input’ (and thus usage and practice of grammatical points in comprehensible output) that is really necessary to advance an L2 learner.

While the learning of grammar is an essential aspect of SLA, the acquisition of pragmatics is often the last frontier for an L2 learner, and is one that some learners never fully acquire. Irony, sarcasm, turn-taking and indirectness all form essential parts of human communication but for some learners (in a similar way to grammar,) they take much longer to master.[20] This is, as I see it, the largest difference in the processes of SLA between an adult acquiring a second language and a child undergoing CLA with two languages, although, in this case (unlike with grammar), it is the child who takes longer to develop pragmatics.

For the adult, mastering pragmatics is likely to be a quick and straightforward process because they already understand the social conventions required in most human communication from their L1. In other words, “a second language learner, […] does not have to acquire the underlying concepts. What he has to acquire is a specific way and a specific means of expressing them.”[21] These ‘interlanguage pragmatics’[22] allow an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant to advance at a faster rate through the final stages of SLA than a child who is exposed to two languages from birth, although even the adult will still have to learn any particular customs or conventions specific to their new country.

When considering children acquiring L2, it is clear that the pragmatics will take longer to develop because the child has no previous knowledge from other languages, having not yet mastered their mother tongue either. I believe it is true that “social conventions can only be acquired through experience”[23]; thus children must hear things such as politeness and role-playing used in action, and then test them out for themselves. Nevertheless, this is not always possible for every aspect of pragmatics because it would not be considered appropriate. For example, a child must learn, at some point, how to control a conversation in order to steer towards, or away from, what is socially deemed suitable or unsuitable. However, it would not be socially possible for a child to take the lead in an adult conversation or in a group of older children. Accordingly, such a child is likely to adopt an adult role when playing with friends or by themselves (for example, when playing ‘mummies and daddies’) in order to practice these traits of communication. It is possible to learn much about a child’s development of pragmatics by observing them at play. For instance, in the following transcript[24], a 3-year-old boy is talking to himself, embodying both the adult role in the conversation as the question-asker, as well as responding as himself:

1: Or did you spit it out?
2: I did spit it out
3: you spit it out
4: (burps) I then I burped
5: You burped? Say excuse me then.
6: excuse me
7: are you saying excuse?
8: I didn’t say that
9: Oh[25]

Here, the boy is showing he has developed an understanding of turn-taking and politeness, making himself “Say excuse me” after burping and also showing a question-response structured conversation. However, these are aspects of communication that he will have picked up from conversation with parents and friends and which he can practice in dialogue with these same people because these traits are socially accepted at any age. To me, the more pragmatically interesting traits of the self-dialogue are the rhetorical question and imperative verb in line 5, which create an authoritative tone the boy could not have prasticed in public. In order to develop these skills, he must practise, as shown here, in private before understanding how and when to use them in natural conversation.

Thus, the process of acquiring pragmatics for a child is a lengthy one involving, among other things, self-teaching. This process is elongated further when considering that the child is unlikely to be exposed to, and therefore able to understand and acquire, such things as irony and sarcasm until much later in childhood. In this way, I believe that the adult undergoing SLA has a great advantage over the child with regard to speed of acquisition, although it is important to remember that both learners will eventually have the same level of proficiency in L2 pragmatics.

The outcomes of SLA (as measured by rate of acquisition and ultimate proficiency) are currently shown to be incredibly varied and often unpredictable. Research in the last ten years has been limited both in volume and in success and it is still, therefore, a common assumption that the age of first exposure (which can occur in an academic setting, from foreign film, from a trip to the L2 country or from many other stimuli) and the age of acquisition (the age at which the learner is immersed in the L2 context) are determining factors in the achievement of an L2 learner[26]. Traditionally, it is thought that age of first exposure (AoE) is of less importance than age of acquisition (AoA,) with academics such as David Bridsong suggesting that AoA and SLA outcome are negatively correlated[27]. This implies that the older a person is when they immerse themselves in the target language, the less likely they are to succeed in L2 learning.

Furthermore, the critical period hypothesis states that there is an ideal time to acquire language and that once this time-window has passed acquisition is significantly more difficult[28]. This would suggest that a child exposed to two languages from birth is far more likely to achieve near-native or native level fluency in their L2 than an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant. Whilst many linguists have supported this claim, the question remains as to whether there is a biological link between age and the ability to acquire language.

I believe, however, that there are other more significant determining factors in the outcome of SLA than age alone; anxiety, attitude and motivation are of vital importance (as backed up by the results Krashen predicts when the affective filter is ‘up’). In my opinion, children generally have the ability to decide they do or do not want to learn a second language at the same time as their mother tongue; the latter option could act as just a strong preventative to L2 acquisition as the crippling embarrassment that could prevent an adult from undergoing SLA. Similarly, if an adult were to move into a L2 environment and be happy to integrate fully into their new community, creating an utterly immersive environment, they would acquire the second language at a similar rate to a child who is willing to be exposed to two languages from birth.

To conclude, attitude and circumstance of the learner are, I believe, more decisive and important factors in the outcome of SLA than age. A child exposed to two languages from birth may have an advantage when learning grammar in terms of rate of acquisition, but an adult will likely acquire pragmatics faster than the child. Similarly, whilst a child may have easier access to i+1 level language, an adult moving into a country where another language is dominant will be forced to seek i+1 language in order to make friends, find employment and survive in a foreign environment.

Ultimately, however, I believe that there are three criteria an L2 learner must meet in order to undergo SLA at the fastest rate possible. Firstly, the learner must fully immerse himself or herself in the foreign context. Secondly, they must be determined to overcome any embarrassment or anxiety present or, in the absence of these factors, simply be enthusiastic and open to L2 learning.  Finally they must produce as much comprehensible output as possible. From my research and experience, I believe that fulfilling these criteria is the most effective way to acquire an L2 and, whilst the theories of Krashen and Chomsky may illustrate how humans acquire language, my hypothesis supplies the most efficient route to bilingualism.

I started this essay with a quotation from Mandela: “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I still believe, as expressed earlier, that the link between the “heart” and a “language” shows a true linguistic command, whether it is a mother tongue or an L2; in order to claim a language as your own such as expressed here, you must fully acquire the given language. I also still believe that it is possible for almost anyone to reach this level of bilingualism or potentially multilingualism. However, whereas before beginning research for this essay, this belief was simply an instinct, I now understand it to be true. Furthermore, I can also now appreciate that there are many routes to bilingualism and that while the processes may be incredibly different, the outcomes are ultimately similar, allowing the vast majority of language learners to have access to communication that truly goes to their heart.


Kasper,G.(1996).Introduction:interlanguagepragmaticsinSLA.StudiesofSecondLanguageAcquisition,18, pp145~148

von Stutterheim, C., & Klein, W. (197). A concept-orientated approach to second language studies. In C. W. Pfaff (Ed.), First and second language acquisition  processes (pp. 191-205.) Cambridge, MA: Newbury.

[1] Title taken from the Trinity College, Cambridge ‘Linguistics Essay Prize’ 2015
[5] ibid
[6] ibid
[7] When referring to the ‘natural order’ I use the term as Krashen does, to signify the progression of SLA given no extenuating circumstances.
[8] Of a level which allows the child to understand the sense of the conversation, if not all of the vocabulary.
[9] ibid
[10] ibid
[12] ibid
[13] ibid
[15] ibid
[16] Dan Clayton, emagazine 27, first appeared February 2005, http://www.englishandmedia.co.uk/emag/subscribers/downloads/archive_emag/_emagpast/CLA%20theories.html, accessed 11/4/15
[17] ibid
[19] ibid
[20] I refer to learners as the population without any known or manifested learning difficulties. It is not within the scope of this essay to explore the effects that learning difficulties, such as Asperger Syndrome, may have on the acquisition of aspects of a second language, such as pragmatics.
[21] Von Stutterheim and Klein, 1987, p194
[22] Kasper, G, 1996, p145
[24] ibid
[25] sic.
[26] Birdsong, D. (2006), Age and Second Language Acquisition and Processing: A Selective Overview. Language Learning, 56: 9–49. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2006.00353.x
[27] ibid

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