The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism
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The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism

François Grosjean, Ping Li

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eBook - ePub

The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism

François Grosjean, Ping Li

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The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism presents a comprehensive introduction to the foundations of bilingualism, coveringlanguage processing, language acquisition, cognition and the bilingual brain.

  • Thisthorough introduction to the psycholinguistics of bilingualism is accessible to non-specialists with little previous exposure to the field
  • Introduces students to the methodological approaches currently employed in the field, including observation, experimentation, verbal and computational modelling, and brain imaging
  • Examines spoken and written language processing, simultaneous and successive language acquisition, bilingual memory and cognitive effects, and neurolinguistic and neuro-computational models of the bilingual brain
  • Written in an accessible style by two of the field's leading researchers, together with contributions from internationally-renowned scholars
  • Featuring chapter-by-chapter research questions, this is an essential resource for those seeking insights into the bilingual mind and our current knowledge of the cognitive basis of bilingualism

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Chapter 1
Bilingualism: A Short Introduction
François Grosjean
The words “bilingual” and “bilingualism” have many different meanings depending on the context they are used in. They can include the knowledge and use of two or more languages, the presentation of information in two languages, the need for two languages, the recognition of two or more languages, and so on. Since this book focuses on the psycholinguistics of bilingual adults and children, we will define bilingualism, and indeed multilingualism, as the use of two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life.
This chapter has several aims. The first is to introduce readers to basic concepts concerning bilingualism and bilinguals so as to help them understand more specialized chapters later in the book. Readers bring with them knowledge of language and cognition but they may know less about bilingualism. Hopefully this chapter will help fill this gap. The second aim is to describe what it is that bilingual participants bring to the studies they take part in. In everyday life, they are “regular bilinguals” with specific language knowledge and language use which they bring to this research as participants. Some of the aspects that will be mentioned are studied specifically or manipulated directly by psycholinguists whilst others simply accompany bilingual participants into the research environment. We need to understand these phenomena so as to be able to make sense of the data that are obtained.
A third aim, which is not restricted to this chapter alone, will be to clarify some misconceptions that surround bilingualism and bilinguals, such as that bilinguals have equal and perfect knowledge of their two or more languages, that they have no accent in any of their languages, that they acquired their languages in childhood, that they are all competent translators, and so on. When it comes to children, we hear that bilingualism will delay their language acquisition, that children will invariably mix their languages, and that being bilingual will have negative effects on their development (see Grosjean, 2010, for a discussion of many of these misconceptions). Some of these will be dispelled in this chapter and others in later chapters.
We will begin with a description of the extent of bilingualism and the reasons that underlie it. Next, we will describe bilinguals in terms of language use and language fluency, and show how these factors can change over time; we will call this the wax and wane of languages. This will be followed by a discussion of the functions of languages, which will revolve around what is now known as the Complementarity Principle. We will then describe what happens when bilinguals are interacting with other bilinguals who share their languages and how this is different from when they are addressing monolinguals; we will do this by means of the language mode concept. We will end with a discussion of biculturalism in bilinguals and the impact it has on bilingual language knowledge and language processing.

1.1 The Extent of Bilingualism

Researchers on bilingualism have repeated over the years that half of the world’s population, if not more, is bilingual. Unfortunately, there are no clear data for the whole world but it is clear that bilingualism is found in all age groups, in all levels of society, and in most countries. For example, a European Commission report (2006) showed that some 56% of the inhabitants of 25 European countries speak a second language well enough to have a conversation in it. They may not all lead their lives with two or more languages but the percentage gives an idea of how extensive bilingualism can be. In North America, some 35% of the population of Canada is bilingual. The percentage is smaller in the United States (around 18–20%) but this still amounts to some 55 million inhabitants. The proportion of bilinguals is much higher in other parts of the world such as Asia and Africa where it is normal to know and use several languages in one’s everyday life.
How can we explain the extent of bilingualism? First, there are many more languages (some 7000 according to Gordon, 2005) than there are countries (193 in 2011). Some countries house numerous languages and this leads to language contact between the inhabitants, and hence bilingualism. For example, there are 516 languages in Nigeria, 427 in India, 200 in Brazil, and so on. Most such countries have one or two languages of communication (lingua francas) which people use along with their more local language, hence the presence of bi- or multilingualism. A second reason, which goes back to the origins of mankind, is that people have always traveled for trade, commerce, business, employment, religion, politics, conflicts, and so on. The populations of many countries today are the result of immigration – examples are the United States, Canada, Australia, and many South American nations. Other countries, which witnessed the emigration of its populations some while back, are now seeing the influx of new immigrants. In the majority of cases, migrants acquire the language of the host country and hence become bilingual; there are also many cases where the original inhabitants adopt the new language, such as with American Indians in North America.
Another important reason for the extent of bilingualism is education and culture. Many students pursue their studies in a region or country with a different language to their own and hence become bilingual. Other events such as intermarriage or professional opportunities – diplomacy, business, foreign journalism, language teaching, and so on – lead to the development of language contact. The phenomenon is far more frequent than one imagines at first and it is only natural, therefore, that the language sciences have given bilingual studies much more room in recent years.

1.2 Describing Bilinguals

In this part, we will first examine two important defining factors of bilingualism – language fluency and language use – and we will then observe how the languages of bilinguals can wax and wane over time.

1.2.1 Language Fluency and Language Use

A common misconception is that bilinguals master two languages fluently. Some will then add that bilinguals do not have an accent in either language and others will propose that they must have learned their languages in childhood. In a sense, bilinguals are seen as two monolinguals in one person. In fact, the majority of bilinguals do not have equal fluency in their languages, many have an accent in at least one of their languages, and many acquired their other language(s) when they were adolescents or adults. As we will see, bilinguals use their languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, to accomplish different things. Their level of fluency in a language depends on their need for that language. Hence many bilinguals are more fluent in a given language, and some cannot read or write one of their languages.
To get around the problem of fluency as a defining criterion (how fluent does one have to be in one’s languages to be bilingual?), many researchers, starting with Weinreich (1968) and Mackey (2000), have put the stress on language use as the defining factor. This explains the definition given at the beginning of this chapter: bilingualism is the use of two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life. Note that this definition includes dialects, and encompasses two or more languages (covering trilingualism, quadrilingualism, etc.). This definition accounts for many more speakers of languages than one based on fluency alone – especially if balanced fluency in the two languages is required – and hence is more realistic.
This said, it is important to also take into account the level of fluency in the bilinguals’ different languages (and language skills), whatever that level may be. To do so, the grid approach that this author has developed can be helpful. Figure 1.1 presents the bilingualism of a person (MC) at two moments in time: at age 26 and at age 36. Language use is presented along the vertical axis of each grid (Never used to Daily use) and language fluency along the horizontal axis (Low fluency to High fluency).
Figure 1.1: Describing a bilingual in terms of language use and language fluency at two moments in time: age 26 and age 36.
We see in the top grid that MC’s most used and most fluent language at age 26 was La (English). His other language, Lb (French), was used on a regular basis although slightly less frequently than La; he was also slightly less fluent in it. MC also had some knowledge of a third language he learned at school (Lc; German) but he never used it. Hence, MC was bilingual in English and French, with a slight dominance in English, and had some knowledge of another language. This is frequent in bilinguals who, in addition to the languages they use on a regular basis, know one or two other languages which they employ more rarely. (It should be noted that we use the symbols La, Lb, and Lc for MC’s three languages. This is because we are not interested here in pointing out which was his first language [L1], his second language [L2], and his third language [L3]. Both types of symbols will be used in this book).
Of course, this first description of the language status of a bilingual is very general as it does not take into account the domains (situations) in which the languages are used (see Section 1.3) or the modalities of a language (the oral, written or signed modalities). To make the description more complete, this kind of grid can be duplicated and used, for instance, for each of the bilingual’s four language skills: speaking, listening, reading, writing. This allows one to delve more deeply into the bilingual’s language configuration, as is normally done with a language questionnaire (see, for example, the questionnaire in Li, Sepanski, & Zhao, 2006). One often finds that the proficiency bilinguals have in the four skills is not the same for their different languages: some may have very good oral comprehension of a language but may not speak it very well; others may know how to read and write one of their languages but not the other, and so on.
The grid approach presented here can also encourage us to examine the relationship between the bilingual’s languages: some languages can be quite close (e.g., Spanish and Italian) and some quite distant (e.g., English and Chinese). It is a well-known fact that closely related languages will influence one another more than will distant languages.

1.2.2 The Wax and Wane of Languages

If we go back to Figure 1.1 and examine the bottom grid, we see MC’s present bilingual configuration (at age 36), that is, 10 years after that of the top grid. We note a striking change: La (English) and Lb (French) are still the best known languages but each one is used slightly less frequently now. Lc (German), however, which was a dormant language acquired in school, has moved up in the grid (it is now used daily) and it has also moved to the right (MC is more fluent in it). The reason is that MC moved to Germany during the 10-year interval and German has become his everyday language, used more frequently than La or Lb. This exemplifies the importance of knowing the language history of bilinguals: which languages are acquired, when and how; what the pattern of fluency and use is over the years; whether some languages go through periods of restructuring under the influence of another, stronger, language, or even become dormant and are slowly forgotten in later years.
Figure 1.2 merges two grids into one and presents the case of a 30-year-old bilingual (EP) who, between the ages of 20 and 30, not only changed his language configuration (as had MC) but, in addition, acquired two new languages. The languages present at age 20 (La: French; Lb: English; Lc: German) are underlined. If they changed position in the 10-year interval this is shown by an arrow going from the original position to the new position. The new languages (Ld: Spanish; Le: Swiss German) are marked (N).
Figure 1.2: A bilingual who, at age 20, knew three languages (La, Lb, Lc) to varying degrees. Between age 20 and 30, two new languages (Ld, Le) were acquired (marked N) and one language (Lc) changed its status (marked by the arrow).
What we observe is that La and Lb have stayed in the same position over the 10-year interval, but Lc is now being used daily and is more fluent. In addition, two new languages have been acquired: Ld (Spanish), which is now known quite well but is not used much, and Le (Swiss German), which is used almost daily but not yet known well. A 1-year stay in another country and then movement within a country (in this case, Switzerland) accounts for these changes.
As illustrated by EP (above), a bilingual’s language history can be quite complex due to life events that reduce or increase the importance of a language (e.g., meeting a companion, losing a family member with whom one spoke a language exclusively, moving to another language region or country, and so on). The process is dynamic and leads to a change in a person’s language configuration and hence language processing. Thus, a bilingual’s languages have moments of stability (the language pattern is relatively stable) and moments of change where one language suddenly acquires new importance and another language may remain stable or have less of a role to play. If one assesses a person’s languages (and language skills) or one undertakes a psycholinguistic study, one must keep in mind the transition periods which can last several years. During these periods, the level of communication attained by the bilingual may not be optimal while the languages reorganize themselves. But when stability is attained, the bilingual will usually regain the level of communication achieved before the change, even if the language configuration is now very different.
Although the examples given above do not exemplify it, language forgetting (called “language loss” or “language attrition”) can also take place during a bilingual’s lifespan. It is a frequent phenomenon, as frequent as language learning, but it has received far less attention (see, for example, Schmid, Köpke, Keijzer, & Weilemar, 2004). During language forgetting, the domains of use of the language are greatly reduced, or sometimes even disappear, and signs of loss appear over time: language production is filled with word finding problems and hesitations; the person’s accent is influenced by the other, stronger, language(s), as is the syntax; the speaker calls on the other language(s) more and more for a word or a phrase, and so on. In addition, bilinguals become very unsure of themselves when they have to use the language and often state that they do not know it any more. Oral comprehension suffers too but less so than production.
In sum, the bilingual’s languages will wax and wane over the years and the different stages will have an impact on psycholinguistic processes. Thus, starting with the early years, the age at which a language is acquired, how it is acquired (for example, in a natural setting or more formally such as i...

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