Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Beyond Binary Options: Effects of Two Languages on the Bilingual Mind

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Beyond Binary Options: Effects of Two Languages on the Bilingual Mind

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

For psychologists, the fascination with bilingualism is to understand how the landscape of the mind is different for people who know two languages than it is for people who know only one. How does the mind accommodate two linguistic systems? Do they share space and resources or divide the territory? What are the implications for the rest of cognition? The interesting perspective on all these questions is from the point of view of the developing mind of children. How does development change the organization of the mind?

In examining these questions, researchers have traditionally construed the possible answers in terms of dichotomous choices. This has been necessary to make any progress with problems that are otherwise intractable because they are intrinsically multifaceted. But the simple options do not represent the possibilities - two languages are not a doubling of one, they are not acquired twice as slowly, and their potential impact on cognition is complex at best. Nonetheless, most research proceeds without sufficient acknowledgement of the morass of complexity inherent in the issues. For example, we routinely compare monolingual and bilingual children, but such comparison presupposes some identifiable dimension of contrast. Theories developed to describe a cognitive phenomenon based on a single language may not simply be expanded and offered as an explanation when two languages reside in the mind of the same speaker.

Simplifying assumptions such as these lead to the familiar dichotomous options, neither of which recognizes the complexity of the problem and both of which are ultimately unsatisfying. This situation has been unavoidable until now because research energy needed to be placed in developing descriptive models of bilingual development. But we are now in a relatively advanced state of knowledge and it is now possible to build on this research and take it in new directions. We must re-examine old assumptions and find more creative solutions to traditional explanations.

The limitations of confining explanations to binary options will be illustrated by examining two issues in bilingual development. The first is representation: How are two languages represented? What is the relation between the languages and the connection between the languages and thought? Second, what are the implications of bilingualism for cognition and cognitive development? It will be argued that dichotomous choices omit alternatives that may offer more realistic and complete solutions. Although no solutions are proposed, it is clear that bilinguals can no longer be described in the same terms that make sense for monolinguals.

2. Representing two languages

When young children are exposed to two languages from an early age, there is an inevitable period during which their utterances are comprised of words selected with apparent disregard for the language they belong to. Examples of these mixed language utterances have been well documented for errors in syntax (e.g., Lanza 1992), vocabulary (e.g., Vihman 1985), and phonology (e.g., Schnitzer -- Krasinski 1994). Volterra and Taeschner (1978) offered an early explanation for these observations by proposing a three-stage model of language consolidation. In the first stage, the child has only one lexical system comprising words and structures from both languages. The second stage is characterized by two distinct lexicons that are governed by a single syntactic system. Finally, the child achieves proper differentiation of the two languages, distinguishing both lexical and syntactic structures for each. This model elicited considerable following at first (Arnberg 1987; Grosjean 1982; Redlinger -- Park 1980; Swain -- We sche 1975; Vihman 1985). Moreover, it was consistent with the position espoused by Leopold in his influential work: "infants exposed to two languages from the beginning do not learn bilingually at first, but weld the double presentation into one unified speech system" (Leopold 1954: 24). …

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