Stefan Ploch,

Raising children bilingual or not bilingual

From LINGUIST List 14.2784 Wed Oct 15 2003

    Various people contributed to this discussion, and gave various suggestions. Credit has not been given here for these contributions.


  2. Comparative studies of reading and problem solving in two languages TESOL Quarterly, Volume 4, Issue 2 Macnamara, John Washington, DC, 1970, pp107-116

  3. Bialystok, Ellen. Bilingualism in Development. CUP.

  4. Genesee, Fred. 2003. Rethinking bilingual acquisition. In Jean- Marc Dewaele, Alex Housen & Li Wei (eds.). Bilingualism: Beyond Basic Principles*. Festschrift in honour of Hugo Baetens Beardsmore. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 204-228.

  5. Hakuta, Kenji. 1986. Mirror of Language: the debate on bilingualism. Basic Books.

    Although Hakuta's book deals with a range of topics connected to bilingualism, he does provide a balanced discussion of a number of studies on bilingual children: this is particularly the case in chapters 2 and 3, entitled ''Bilingualism and Intelligence'' and ''Childhood Bilingualism''. Hakuta openly sets out to debunk a number of myths about bilingualism, but this does not prevent him from critiquing studies that speak in favor of childhood bilingualism, e.g. Peal and Lambert's (1962) study on French/English bilinguals in Canada. I recommend this book because, like Hakuta, I find it interesting that the question as to whether it is 'problematic' to raise a child bilingually surfaces much more frequently than the inverse question: is it 'problematic' to raise a child monolingually? The wide-spread and popular (or 'folk') stigmatization of bilingualism suggests that greater socio-political factors are involved in the process.

    As linguists, I think it is interesting to ask ourselves why it is so often the case that monolingualism is taken as the starting point or the default 'position' rather than bilingualism? It was with this question in mind that I responded to your message and immediately thought of Hakuta's book.

  6. Romaine, Suzanne. 1995. Bilingualism. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

  7. Eveline de Jong, (1986), The Bilingual Experience, Cambridge University Press (reprinted 1993). This book summarises the experience both of parents who succeeded to raise their children bilingual as of those who failed to do so. Finally, I think one important aspect often not taken into account is that bilingual children often have parents who have a higher/academic education. This has of course a certain impact on the way the child is supported/stimulated in the process of language acquisition.

    I find the literature over the years to be non-commital in the following sense:

    1. Methodological problems: Usually the studies reported are case studies as these reflect long-term follow-up on development. Those studies that are empirical in nature tend to provide measures that while numerically convincing, always seem to represent a utopian average to which no bi or multilingual can relate but rather institutions such as educational systems establish policy based on such results.

    2. The study of bilingualism (albeit the mainstream attitude) tends to view bi or multilinguals as ''one entity'' in two ways: first, bilinguals are regarded as the sum total of two monolinguals- they are bilinguals simply by virtue of a phisiological fact namely, the containment of both languages within one body. Bilingualism is a special - third state phenomena which is the priviledge or the handicap of a bilingual individual. (Read anything you can get your hands on by the following: Grosjean,Genessee , Lanza, Stavans, De Hower, and Hoffman).

    3. Second, the definition of bilingualism has over the years has been flexed to the extent that almost everyone on the globe (this being a global village) can count as bilingual. There are distinctions to be made between incipient and later bilingualism, functional or instrumental bilingualism, active or passive bilingualism and so on. There is almost no care in these comparisons (bi/mono)regarding issues of pragmetics, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics that account for the history of the individual's bilingualism which in my view is an integral part of that individual bilinguality as well as bilingualism.

    4. In the eye of the beholder/believer - the split between advantages and disadvantages on bilingualism are a matter of taste, experience, and beliefs. The training of the researchers advocating one or the other view seems to me to have a strong impact on the view they advocate. When reading on this matter keep in mind who is writing.

    5. Personally, there is no one bilingual that can be described or qualified or quantified by one model of either each monolingual system or a fixed model of bilingual. I mean to say, that even when we establish the pros and cons of bilingualism we must take care of not doing so by looking at a bilingual accordint to the ''fixed'' ideal features of a utopian monolingual of the languages he knows, nor according to a made up utopian model of bilinguals as these will fail on two counts:

      • the languages (typologically similar or different) may render various types of bilingual productions;

      • individual differences in processing language among bi or monolingual individuals;

      • the needs and style of communication of the individual in different life situations and social settings may shape the bilingualism in numerous ways that may not be the same across individuals nor within individuals.

    6. It is always more difficult to deal with complex systems (multilingualism) than simple ones (monolingualism).

    On average I do not think that bilinguals experience more learning difficulties than monolinguals but rather a similar distribution of difficulties in both types of individuals is to be found. What may give this impression is what sort of difficulties are we talking about and how those are diagnosed or tested. To do so there have been studies sowing that bilinguals do perform better than monolinguals on both analytic and non-analytic tasks but again it depends which study you read and how that study impresses you as credible / convincing. People to read who think like me would be: Genessess, Grosjean, Kroll, Obler, Lanza, Stavans, DeHower, Meisel and Wei (off the top of my head) also Baker gives interesting layperson descriptions on these issues with the educational twist to it.

  8. Kielhfer, Bernd, and Sylvie Jonekeit Zweisprachige Kindererziehung (1995/1998. Tuebingen: Stauffenburg Verlag).

      I haven't read it in a while, but some of the arguments against raising kids bilingually had to do with: not having enough exposure in at least one language to be the ''strong language'', bicultural confusion/identity confusion (familial relation difficulty is also brought up in the context of there possibly be stress in the family partly attributable to two parents from different linguistic/social backgrounds), and some really crazy sounding stuff about kids with two languages having ''intelligence deficits''! Also brought up is the claim that learning a 2nd language somehow weakens the 1st, or strong language. Acquiring literacy in two languages at the same time also seems to be under question. These arguments often seemed to center around immigrant families in Gastarbeiter sort of situations, if I recall right, and some of the negative arguments get very crazy sounding (these kids are emotionally damaged, stutter, etc.).

    A couple of sources noted for negative effects are:

  9. Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. Clevedon. Multilingual Matters.

  10. Jones, W.R. (1959). Bilingualism and Intelligence. Cardiff.

  11. Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1984). Bilingualism or not: The Education of Minorities. Clevedon. Multilingual Matters

  12. Cummins, Jim. 1976, April. The Influence of bilingualism on Cognitive Growth: a Synthesis of Research Findings and Explanatory Hypotheses. In Working Papers on Bilingualism. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. pp. 1-43. Repr. in Colin Baker & Nancy H. Hornberger (Eds.). 2001. An Introductory Reader to the Writings of Jim Cummins. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 26-55.

  13. Cook, V. 1997. The consequences of bilingualism for cognitive processing. in A.M.B. de Groot & J.F. Kroll. eds. Tutorials in Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp.279-299.

    Reviews research up to about 1993. The bibliography of >70 references should be useful. The author covers both sides of the debate fairly, I think, though he comes down in the end very much on the ''for'' side.

  14. Oller, J.W. 1997. Monoglottosis: What's wrong with the idea of the IQ meritocracy and its racy cousins? Applied Linguistics 18/4:467-507.

    An attack on IQ as a construct and as used in assessment, in the context of bilingualism. One might find here support for the view that in some cases where a bilingual disadvantage was found, this was an artifact of testing.