Term Paper: Bilingual First Language Acquisition

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[. . .] Infants use multiple cues to determine word boundaries between the ages of six months to 24 months. As early as 7.5 months of age, infants can detect stress patterns in speech and later, phonotactic nuances (i.e., acceptable consonant clusters at the beginning of a word).

Oller's research was aimed at providing empirical research in an effort to support parents who are in search of reliable data with which to base their decisions on child rearing. Oller's methodology included a study that contrasted and compared children who were either being raised in a monolingual English environment or in a bilingual Spanish and English environment. The children were all two months old at the onset of the study. The bilingual children were exposed to both languages equally. Forty-four monolingual subjects and 29 bilingual subjects participated. A scale of 1-5 was assigned to the factors of parental education, parental employment patterns, and family stability, to account for sociological influences. The average scores of the factors for the two groups were comparable.

During the first year, monthly laboratory visits transpired. In between visits, the parents journalized the children's vocalizations, especially their use of repetitive well-formed syllables. Consecutive formed syllables were considered canonical babbling. Through training, the parents were able to uniformly notice specific features of their infants' sounds such as when the canonical babbling began and the unique characteristics of the spoken sounds. (Oller et al., 412) After scientists reviewed the vocalizations, the sounds were categorized as either having a quasivowel or a full vowel, as well as whether or not a consonant was used. True canonical babbling consisted of a full vowel and at least one consonant-like sound joined with a well-formed transition. Canonical babbling was considered more advanced than utterances lacking in one or more of these features.

The level of difficulty was observed as greatly increasing between the ages of three months and ten months. The rate of improvement decreased after ten months. There were no significant differences between the monolingual children studied and the bilinguals, disproving the bilingual deficit hypothesis. The only significant deviance was that children of higher socioeconomic status had higher volubility, i.e., more utterances per minute. Otherwise, there were no significant changes for the start of canonical babbling, the ratio of canonical babbling syllables to the total number of syllables produced, the vowel ratios, or the number of utterances per minute by monolingual and bilingual children. (Oller et al., 420)

The MacArthur CDI

Documentation for standards in developmental word lists were absent until MacArthur developed the Communicative Development Inventory (CDI) toddler and infant forms. (Jackson-Maldonado & Bates, 1988) Prior to this, lists of words were recorded by linguists on mostly small samples of children (some were the biological birth children of the researchers), which varied greatly from one another in terms of what was recorded, the timing in records, and the methodology employed. The earlier studies consisted of: Volterra & Taeschner (1978), Taeschner (1983), Leopold (1939), Vogel (1975), Vihman (1985), Jekat (1985), Mikes (1990), Yavas (1991) and Quay (1993). (See De Houwer, 1990, for a review.) Direct comparisons with these sources were difficult at best because of their unique differences.

MacArthur standardized an inventory tool in 1989 for ages eight months to two years and six months that allows parents to easily record the word their child uses at each sampling interval in more than one language. The infant form in English consists of 395 words that represent the words most frequently produced during the ages of eight months and one year and three months. The words are arranged in twenty-two semantic categories. The form asks parents to mark words comprehended in one column, and words comprehended and produced in another. The toddler form contains 679 words and is used for children who are between ages one and two. At this age, the only parameter for scoring is word production. The Spanish version of the CDI utilizes the English format, with research studies as the basis for the 428 infant words and 732 toddler words. The CDI does not purport to be a historical record of every word a child might say, but rather a representation of the results of a controlled sample.

The validity of the CDI as a reliable controlled sample was tested with hour-long samplings of the productive vocabulary of 45 children. The results (the LEX Database) were in agreement with the CDI. (Dale & Fenson, 1993). Hence, this standardized tool allows for the discovery of translation equivalents in the child's vocabulary structure and as a comparative reference point for language development. It would be useful to parents to know in advance the most commonly articulated words and in what stages, and according to what timing they are expected to occur. While each child has an individual rate of development, these are useful parameters to gauge whether the child is progressing within a range of normal standards. The parent embarking on raising a bilingual child should have an understanding of their expectations regarding significant milestones so that they can properly intervene if additional assistance is required at any given stage.

Linguistic Milestones

At the Montreal Neurological Institute, Laura Ann Petitto of the Department of Psychology studied bilingual acquisition via two modalities, i.e, by observing children learning sign language and English, and children learning French and English. The study was conducted with six children, three in each modality, over the course of a year during which time the children were observed by videotape. The children ranged in age from two to three years old throughout the duration of the study.

The results brought forth the following key points:

Both groups of study children achieved their early linguistic milestones in each of their languages at the same time.

The language milestones achieved were similar to monolinguals.

Both groups produced a number of semantically corresponding words in each of their two languages from their very first words.

The children demonstrated sensitivity to the predominant speaker's language by altering their language choices in a similar pattern.

The tendency to mix languages was directly proportional to the mixing rates of the parent's vernacular.

The study reached the conclusion that the capacity to differentiate between two languages is established prior to first words. This capacity, the authors claim, "may be attributable to biological mechanisms that permit the discovery of early phonological representations."

The first study conducted by Petitto examines the "timing of the achievement of early linguistic milestones in each language that provides insight into the issue of possible developmental language delay." Timing is an important indicator of the functioning of the biological processes, and information about the timing of language development will help to assay or dispel the theories surrounding early language development. (Petitto, 2001)

As a baseline model, data on monolingual children have shown that, while the number of words spoken varies according to socio-environmental input factors, the timing in the development of language is constant. The first word milestone universally occurs between the ages of nine months and one year and two months. The first two-word combinations occur between ages one year and five months and two years and two months. The first fifty words occur on average by one year and seven months. Despite various outside attempts at influencing these outcomes, they have remained stable. These milestones are considered largely biological and not vulnerable to change by environmental input. A graphical representation of these milestones is presented below:

The unitary language hypothesis infers that the human capacity for language is biologically predetermined for monolingual language acquisition. Is the brain set to absorb one language only? Are additional neural pathways required for the processing of two languages? If so, then one could surmise that the timing of language milestones could differ for each language, and further, that the timeframe for bilinguals would differ from that of monolinguals. Otherwise, it would be equally surmised that the same neural mechanism could be recruited to establish multiple language mechanisms early on. The studies on timing conducted by Petitto concluded that the infants in control groups consistently achieved the classic linguistic milestones on a similar timetable in both languages and on a timetable that was similar to monolinguals. (Petitto, 1988)

These findings were supported by the work of Pearson & Fernandez. (Pearson, 1993). Pearson's study was intended to test the unitary language theories of Volterra & Taeschner as well as Clark's Principle of Contrast. In Pearson's study, the vocabularies of 27 developing bilinguals were recorded between the ages of 0 and 2 by parents using the MacArthur CDI, a standardized form for maintaining vocabulary lists. The children were learning to speak in both English and Spanish. The study found that the language development mirrored the characteristics of monolingual children, during the same timetable, at the same rate and with the same spurts in growth. The researchers noted that "any differences between their two languages could be directly attributed to differences in the child's socio-linguistic environment." Although… [END OF PREVIEW]

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