Tool Module: Different Types of Bilingualism

To learn his or her first language, a child spends quite a while listening, repeating, and learning by trial and error during the first five years of life. There’s no way to do the same thing once children have begun school and are trying to learn a second language in a class held for only one or two hours per week. So how do the students learn a second language when the teacher is speaking only that language and they understand only perhaps a quarter of the words? First of all, they go by the many clues that help them to decipher the message, such as the intonation, which often conveys a speaker’s intentions, for good or ill, and the context, which in a classroom might be the stated subject of the day’s lesson or the photo illustrating the day’s reading. Second, the students also learn by memorizing word lists, grammatical rules, verb conjugations, and so on.

This way of learning a second language is quite different from the trial-and-error method by which young children learn their mother tongue without even realizing it. One important difference is that with the second language, the child’s desire to communicate is not remotely so strong, especially in a school setting. (In contrast, learning a second language is easier when the learners are immersed in a community where this language is spoken, probably because that gives them more incentive to use it.) A lesser degree of motivation has also been correlated with lower dopamine levels, which is what one would expect for a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and desire.

Practicing a language in an environment where it is spoken is what lets us internalize its grammar. When we are learning our mother tongue, it is through repeated exposure to certain kinds of sentences that we implicitly encode the grammatical rules involved and eventually come to understand and produce our own sentences effortlessly.

Bilingualism is divided into three different types. Both co-ordinated bilingualism and compound bilingualism develop in early childhood and are classified as forms of early bilingualism. The third type is late bilingualism, which develops when a second language is learned after age 12.

In co-ordinated bilingualism, children develop two parallel linguistic systems, so that for any one word, the child has two signifiers and two signifieds. One situation in which a child may develop co-ordinated bilingualism is when the two parents have different mother tongues and each parent speaks only his or her own mother tongue to the child. In response, the child constructs two separate linguistic systems and can handle each of them easily. Another such situation is when relatively young children who have already mastered their mother tongue are adopted by parents who speak a different language. Once again, the distinction between the two languages is crystal-clear for the child.

In compound bilingualism, children have only one signified for two signifiers and so cannot detect the conceptual differences between the two languages. Compound bilingualism is what occurs when both parents are bilingual and both parents speak to the child in both languages indiscriminately. The child will grow up to speak both languages effortlessly and without an accent, but will never master all the subtleties of either of them. In other words, the child will not really have a mother tongue.

There are of course, some cases of bilingualism that lie between these extremes, because people’s educational, social, and work environments also influence their acquisition of a second language.

Late bilingualism is defined in contrast to early bilingualism, because late bilingualism is developed after the critical period for language learning. In such cases, it is thought that when people acquire their second language through immersion in a community that speaks it, implicit memory plays more of a role, whereas when they do so solely through formal classroom studies, explicit memory is more involved.

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