Chapter 12

Early bilingual language development: one language or two?

FRED GENESEE

IT IS COMMONLY THOUGHT that children learning two languages simultaneously during infancy go through a stage when they cannot differentiate their two languages. In fact, virtually all studies of infant bilingual development have found that bilingual children mix elements from their two languages. Researchers have interpreted these results as evidence for an undifferentiated or unitary underlying language system. In this chapter I will examine the empirical basis for these claims and I will argue that they are questionable because of serious methodological shortcomings in the research. I will then offer some tentative evidence based on speech perception studies and re-analyses of selected bilingual case studies that young bilingual children are psycholinguistically able to differentiate two languages from the earliest stages of bilingual development and that they can use their two languages in functionally differentiated ways, thereby providing evidence of differentiated underlying language systems.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to define some terms that will be used in the remainder of this chapter. BILINGUAL DEVELOPMENT/ACQUISITION will be used to refer to simultaneous acquisition of more than one language during the period of primary language development. FIRST LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT/ACQUISITION will be used when acquisition of only one language from birth is in question. SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION will be used to refer to acquisition of a second language after the period of primary language development. Finally, the term MIXING will be used to refer to interactions between the bilingual child's developing language systems. Mixing has been used by other researchers to refer to the co-occurrence of elements from two or more languages in A SINGLE UTTERANCE. The mixed elements may be phonological, morphological, lexical, syntactic, phrasal or pragmatic. The definition is problematic when discussing childhood bilinguals

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