Early Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Parents’ and Caregivers’ Attitudes and Observations

by Zofia Chłopek (Author)
Monographs 223 Pages
Series: Gdańsk Studies in Language, Volume 6


The author investigates the development of children raised bilingually or multilingually. Parents and caregivers completed a questionnaire, providing information on 36 children growing up with two or more languages. Their responses indicate that bilingual and multilingual children usually develop as well as their monolingual peers, and sometimes even better. Some drawbacks of early bilingualism or multilingualism, such as a slight delay in the onset of speech production or asymmetrical language competences, are compensated for by several benefits of early acquisition of two or more mother tongues and early contacts with two or more cultures.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 0. Introduction
  • 0.1 The aim and scope of the book
  • 0.2 The structure of the book
  • 0.3 Some terminological remarks
  • 0.4 Abbreviations and symbols
  • 1. Early bi-/multilingualism – current research outcomes
  • 1.1 Basic information on language appropriation and use
  • 1.2 Acquiring the mother tongue
  • 1.3 Early bi-/multilingualism
  • 1.3.1 Clarification of terms
  • 1.3.2 The beginnings: one common store or separate stores?
  • 1.3.3 The language development of a bi-/multilingual child
  • 1.3.4 Metalinguistic awareness
  • 1.3.5 Cultural transfer and metapragmatic awareness
  • 1.3.6 The cognitive development of a bi-/multilingual child
  • 1.4 Conclusion
  • 2. Parents’ and caregivers’ attitudes towards early bi-/multilingualism – empirical study
  • 2.1 Research questions
  • 2.2 Method
  • 2.2.1 Participants
  • 2.2.2 Questionnaire
  • 2.3 Results
  • 2.3.1 Early bi-/multilingualism and language development
  • 2.3.2 Cross-linguistic influence
  • 2.3.3 Metalinguistic awareness
  • 2.3.4 Early bi-/multilingualism and cognitive development
  • 2.3.5 Cultural transfer
  • 2.3.6 Early bi-/multilingualism and attitudes
  • 2.3.7 Parents/caregivers’ evaluation of bi-/multilingualism
  • 3. Discussion and conclusions
  • References
  • Subject Index
  • Appendix: The questionnaire used in the study – English version

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0. Introduction

0.1 The aim and scope of the book

The idea of writing this book was born when yet another person asked me the question about the optimal age of the first contact with a non-native language. At that time I had read numerous psycholinguistic, neurolinguistic and other publications, so I responded without hesitation that the best time for a child to have contact with two or more languages was at birth. The fact, however, that people kept asking me this question made me realize that what seemed obvious to me was probably not known to a wider public, and especially to those people who could most benefit from such information – to parents and caregivers. Soon after that I discovered a few Internet websites offering more or less accurate descriptions of the results of a research study which pointed to a strong positive correlation between bilingualism and stuttering.2 I was worried about the fact that such results spread with incredible speed due solely to their shocking character and thus could have a strong impact on children’s early education, whilst the vast majority of reliable studies remained unknown to the average family. I began to wonder what the reality was, how many parents decided to raise their children bilingually (or even multilingually) and how difficult it was for them to make this decision – whether it was an extremely hard step to take or an obvious way to raise their children. These considerations induced me to seek contact with parents/caregivers of bi-/multilingual children, in order to get to know their attitudes and beliefs about early bi-/multilingualism. The results of this research are included in the present monograph.

The main aim of the book is to contribute to the debate on the positive and negative effects of early bilingualism and multilingualism on the development of a child. This debate has been conducted for years in various psycholinguistic, psychological and linguistic publications.3 In particular, the book aims to analyze the influence of early exposure to two or more languages (and cultures) on a young child’s linguistic and cognitive development. I would like to emphasize that the book deals only with early bi-/multilingualism, i.e. the acquisition of two or more mother tongues in natural communication of everyday life. Thus I am not interested in early foreign language learning (e.g. in nursery school). This means that ← 9 | 10 → the conclusions drawn for the consequences of early bi-/multilingualism do not refer to a situation when a child takes part in foreign language lessons, even if these are conducted in a relatively informal fashion.4

I sincerely hope that the present publication will turn out to be useful to researchers working in the field of early bi-/multilingualism. At the same time it might prove useful to parents/caregivers who are yet unsure whether to speak one language, two languages or perhaps even more languages to their children.

Each child in this study has his or her own story about living with two or more languages and in a publication like this it is impossible to retell each story in a personalized way. It seems to me, however, that the book reflects some of the wonder of individual multilingualism and will allow the reader a useful insight into the lives of these children which involve more than one language (and often more than one culture).

0.2 The structure of the book

The book consists of three main parts. The aim of the first part is to present state-of-the-art information on language acquisition by young children and on early bi-/multilingualism. This information derives mainly from psycholinguistic publications, though studies conducted by researchers working in related fields, such as neurolinguistics and psychology, are also cited. In the second part, the results of the research study are presented; in particular, the respondents’ (parents’ and caregivers’) evaluation of their children’s development and their attitudes towards early bi-/multilingualism are analyzed. In the final chapter, I summarize the results obtained taking into account other research studies and attempt to provide an answer to the question regarding the influence of early bi- or multilingualism on the development of a child. The questionnaire used in the study can be found in the Appendix.

0.3 Some terminological remarks

In the present study, the term language is used in two meanings. Firstly, this term refers to an acoustic natural language (when another type of language, e.g. a sign language, is meant, it is always made clear in the text). In this meaning, language is understood as a system of verbal and nonverbal symbols or signs, combined to form meaningful utterances with the help of a set of rules. It performs two basic ← 10 | 11 → functions for the human being: the representative function, thanks to which human beings are able to represent in their minds the outer reality and the inner world of thoughts and feelings, and the pragmatic function, which enables communication (e.g. Nęcka, Orzechowski and Szymura 2006: 590–591; Kurcz 2007: 10). A given language is part of a given culture; it is shaped by this culture and, at the same time, it is a tool for its expression. When we say that someone is learning a language, this meaning of the term is used.

A language never exists in some abstract reality, nor in a grammar book – it is stored in the brains of its speakers in the form of neural connections appropriately activated during speaking, listening, writing and reading. Thus, the term language is also used in the present monograph to describe the linguistic system present in the brain, i.e. the linguistic competences stored in the long-term memory. This term is used irrespectively of the achieved level of proficiency, to denote both the knowledge of a weak language (or interlanguage; Selinker 1972) and the knowledge of a fluently mastered language. The language system of a bi- or multilingual person comprises two or more language subsystems. In turn, each language subsystem has its own subsystems or submodules – the phonological one, the morphological one, the syntactic one etc. (e.g. Paradis 2004).

Communicative competence is a term referring to all the linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge and skills which are needed for successful communication: various (meta)linguistic, (meta)pragmatic and (meta)paralinguistic abilities, as well as some general knowledge (including elements of the knowledge of the world, such as sociocultural knowledge) and skills (such as the ability to learn languages) (Canale and Swain 1980; Bachman 1990; Council of Europe 2001: 101–130).

As used in this study, language appropriation is a general term denoting the development of linguistic knowledge in the mind (see Paradis 2009). This term is a hypernym of the terms acquisition and learning. Language acquisition is a subconscious, implicit and unintentional process which takes place in natural communication; it involves mainly procedural memory. Language learning is a conscious, explicit and intentional process typical of formal school instruction; it involves predominantly declarative memory (Krashen 1981, 1982). Subconscious, acquired competence and conscious, learned knowledge cooperate with each other constantly (Ellis 2005).

The term language use denotes the processes of speaking, writing, listening and reading in a language or languages. Although speaking and writing are typically described as productive skills and listening and reading as receptive skills, in reality each kind of language use requires active cognitive and affective processing (see e.g. Savignon 1991: 261). In real communicative situations these skills are hardly ← 11 | 12 → ever applied independently of each other; moreover, language production stimulates the processes of speech comprehension (Levelt 1989).

The distinction between language appropriation and language use is rather artificial – language appropriation is language use, and language use often leads to language appropriation. In spite of this, the distinction is retained, in order to place different emphasis on the described processes – the process of the development of linguistic skills and the process of the application of these skills.

The present book does not deal with the issues of language being an innate property of the human being or an environmentally developed skill (nature versus nurture; see e.g. Hockema and Smith 2009). The default assumption is that, simply put, the structure of the human brain, which is biologically predisposed to acquire various linguistic (and other) skills, undergoes quantitative and qualitative changes as a result of the interactions between the current skills (the already developed brain functions) and the environmental stimuli (or rather the individual processing of these stimuli) – appropriate neurons grow, synaptic connections are developed or pruned. Because there are many different (external and internal) factors that influence these processes, and a change in one factor may be followed by a change in the current processes or the emergence of new ones, the brain is characterized by continuous dynamics (Larsen-Freeman 1997; Herdina and Jessner 2002; de Bot, Lowie and Verspoor 2007; de Bot 2008; Ellis 2008; Verspoor, Lowie and van Dijk 2008; Hockema and Smith 2009). These changes take place throughout the whole life, though they are more rapid when there is a pressing need for a human being to be able to communicate in a given language (as in early childhood).

Natural, real or authentic communication is the use of language for the purposes of learning about reality, participating in the world around us and developing a social identity. In natural communication people express their thoughts and feelings and learn about other people’s thoughts and feelings. In particular, they produce and receive different speech acts, such as greeting, request, advice, regret, promise or excuse (Austin 1962; Searle 1969). The choice of a language form is dictated by its meaning in a given situation. Natural communication involves mainly procedural memory.

Unnatural or inauthentic language instruction typically takes place in foreign language classrooms. The focus is on the accuracy of linguistic forms and the content of produced/received utterances is usually irrelevant. A language is not perceived as a tool for communicating thoughts and feelings, though learners realize that it may be used this way some day in the future.

The first language, the native language or the mother tongue is defined here as the language which is acquired in natural communication in early childhood, i.e. before a child’s fifth birthday. The second language, the third language etc. ← 12 | 13 → are languages appropriated after early childhood. The terms first language (L1), second language (L2), third language (L3) etc. denote languages appropriated in chronological order, even though their level of mastery may not correspond with the sequence of appropriation. For instance, if a Polish-speaking child began learning English in kindergarten and French at school, Polish is their L1, English – L2 and French – L3; if a person was raised in a bilingual Polish-German family and started learning French at school and Spanish at college, they have two L1s (Polish and German), an L2 (French) and an L3 (Spanish). The symbol L2+ is used to denote a second or any further language (i.e. L2, L3, L4 etc.); the symbol L3+ is used for a third or any further language (i.e. L3, L4, L5 etc.).5 The foreign language is a language learned as a result of inauthentic formal language instruction; it is usually a language which is not spoken by the people from the learner’s environment.

In the present study, individual bilingualism is understood as a situation when a person has mastered two languages at a communicative level of proficiency. Similarly, individual multilingualism means communicative fluency in three or more languages. In the case of early bi-/multilingualism, a given person acquires two or more native languages (L1s) (see also section 1.3.1).

Neither bilingualism nor multilingualism means perfect (native-like) mastery of each language. As a matter of fact, in real life it is impossible to make a strict distinction between a language learner (whose skills in at least one language are limited) and a bi-/multilingual person (who is relatively fluent in all their languages). In the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages “it is assumed that the language learner is in the process of becoming a language user” (Council of Europe 2001: 43). Moreover, it is well known that the psycholinguistic processes which take place in the minds of language learners and bi-/multilingual language users are similar (see Chłopek 2011: section 4.2). A person who has some linguistic skills in at least two languages is usually somewhere on a continuum between knowing only one language, i.e. monolingualism, and knowing all their languages fluently, i.e. bi-/multilingualism. The latter situation is in fact relatively rare (even if we assume that perfect mastery of a language is possible at all). In real life, a bi-/multilingual usually needs each of their languages for different purposes and so has developed specific subskills (and, at the same time, neglected other ones) in each language. ← 13 | 14 →

Throughout the book I refer to individual bilingualism or multilingualism. However, it should be kept in mind that depending on the research context, the terms may be used in a different way. Firstly, societal bi-/multilingualism is a situation when a given community uses two or more languages on an everyday basis; some of its members may be monolingual but the community as a whole is not. Secondly, educational or school bi-/multilingualism is the use of two or more languages in institutional contexts; such a situation certainly fosters individual bi-/multilingualism (see Lasagabaster 1998).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
multilingual children language development cognitive development bilingual children
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 223 pp., 11 tables, 6 graphs

Biographical notes

Zofia Chłopek (Author)

Zofia Chłopek’s research interests lie within the domains of applied linguistics and psycholinguistics. They include, inter alia, cross-linguistic influence and conceptual transfer in a multilingual mind, teaching third and additional languages, intercultural education as well as early bi-/multilingualism.


Title: Early Bilingualism and Multilingualism
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226 pages