The Language Ecology of Bilingual Memory

By Haritos, Calliope | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Language Ecology of Bilingual Memory


Haritos, Calliope, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

The present research examined language(s)-memory relations among compound bilingual children. Findings revealed the importance of language socialization with respect to language behavior exhibited by participants at recall. Bilinguals exhibited significant gains, with increased language experience, in communicative and conceptual linguistic competence, and metalinguistic competence. Results suggest that bilingual memory is not a dormant, cognitive state but a dynamic mosaic of reciprocal relations between individual, cognitive, social, contextual, and behavioral factors.

Introduction

The focus of the present study was on the relationship of how language(s) interact with the cognitive processes of Long Term Memory among compound Greek-English bilingual children. Compound bilinguals (also referred to in the literature as simultaneous bilinguals) are developing both their languages, L1 and L2, concurrently through daily use (Ervin & Osgood, 1954; Grosjean, 1982). In the present research, bilingual participants, while learning two languages at the same time at home, were educated in two different contexts; learning two languages simultaneously in school daily versus receiving more limited (2 afternoons per week) formal education in Greek. Therefore, the aforementioned relationship was examined as a developing function of bilinguals' language socialization.

The dynamics of bilingual memory are illustrated within the construct of language ecology (Creese & Martin, 2003), which acknowledges the importance of both the language speaker (the individual) as well as the language setting (the environment). Thus, language is not viewed as a separate or static entity but rather as an integral part of the speech community in which it resides and is sustained (i.e., born, develops and is used). In this regard, language ecology embraces both the relationship between one's languages as well as the relationship between one's languages and one's cognitive development. Consistent with language ecology, it follows that a comprehensive examination of bilinguals' language behavior, including how they use their languages to perform different cognitive functions, such as memory, necessitates consideration of one's prior language experiences. These experiences, which are both cognitive and social in nature, include how bilinguals acquire, develop, use, and think about their languages, language attitudes and preferences, as well as prior social interactions, where bilinguals negotiate meaning and acquire knowledge about the social and cognitive demands of a given learning task.

If we examine the bilingual memory literature through the lens of language ecology it becomes evident that many of its branches have not been made readily visible and/or systematically controlled for by researchers and, as a result, the dynamics of bilingual memory has yet to be fully realized. More specifically, much of the literature has emphasized the cognitive aspect of bilingualism, namely L1 versus L2 proficiency among coordinate bilinguals. Coordinate or consecutive bilinguals have acquired their second (subordinate) language, L2, much later than their first (dominant) language, L1, sometimes well into adulthood (Grosjean, 1982; Weinrich, 1953). More specifically, for coordinate bilinguals, L2 is acquired subsequent to the linguistic and conceptual development of L1. Consistent with the focus on coordinate bilinguals are linear depictions of L2 acquisition as a cognitive burden that raises the difficulty level by a factor of x+1 (Mahon, Crutchley, & Quinn, 2003) and unidimensional characterizations of bilinguals as static language processing vessels and/or storage containers. Bilingual memory models, also based on coordinate bilinguals, have followed suit in this regard, reducing bilingual memory to a simple dichotomy (i.e., language specific versus language neutral memory) whereby language(s)memory links are based solely on L1 versus L2 proficiency and/or dominance. …

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