University of Calgary & Universität Hamburg
Bilingual acquisition – diversity or divergence?
Freitag, 06.03.2020, 10:00–11:00 Uhr
Ort: Audimax (VMP4)
Bilingual settings are perceived as exemplary cases of linguistic diversity, it seems, if only because more than one language is used. This is correct, trivially so because it does not in itself represent an insight worth pursuing. Rather, what apparently makes it a research topic of special interest is that language contact is frequently assumed to trigger cross-linguistic interaction, resulting in further diversity within and across linguistic varieties. Increased variability in language use, system-internal restructuring, and transfer of grammatical properties from the other language are the most frequently predicted effects generating diversity. The rationale underlying these assumptions seems to be the belief that when more than one language is processed in one brain, this will inevitably affect the way in which linguistic knowledge is acquired, stored and used, ultimately altering the nature of the system itself. Yet this assumption stands in conflict with results obtained by studies of bilingual development investigating the simultaneous acquisition of two (or more) languages. A large body of research carried out over the past 40 years has demonstrated that bilingual children are able to differentiate their linguistic knowledge from very early on and to develop competences qualitatively the same as those of monolinguals. These studies thus provide little empirical evidence supporting the idea that child bilingualism leads to divergent developments of the predicted sort.
The challenge then is to reconcile hypotheses put forth by descriptive and theoretical linguistics with insights gained by psycholinguistic and acquisition research. Ideally, joint efforts of these distinct lines of theorising about language could be envisaged. The issue that I will pursue in this presentation concerns the conditions under which bilingual acquisition is likely to lead to alterations of speakers’ competences not encountered in grammars of corresponding monolinguals. Cases where this has been argued to occur are child and adult second language learners and heritage language speakers. They differ from monolingual and bilingual first language learners in that onset of acquisi-tion happens later and the amount of exposure to the target languages is significantly reduced. Both onset and input (quantity and quality) thus qualify as causal factors favouring grammatical change. Moreover, since it has been known for a long time that not all properties of grammars are equally likely to be affected, the grammatical nature of particular conÅ structions must also be taken into account. Crucially, bilingualism is on its own not a sufficient condition for divergence.
In sum, alleged effects of language contact must be compatible with empirical facts and theoretical insights gained by bilingual acquisition research. Ultimately, all developments happen in the mental grammars of bilingual individuals. Yet many such claims are not actually based on analyses of ongoing processes, e.g. in research on diachronic change or in the large majority of studies dealing with heritage language speakers. Their plausibility therefore depends on whether hypothesized grammatical changes can be shown to occur under comparable conditions in ongoing developmental processes. I consider this to be an opportunity where we may study ‘the use of present to explain the past’ (Labov 1975).