Bilingualism & Language Acquisition

Bilingualism generally refers to the ability to speak two or more languages. It is possible to acquire a second language at any point in one's life, however young children tend to have a significant advantage in becoming fluent and being able to speak without an accent. This is believed to occur because of a critical period for language: children from birth to around puberty are able to acquire languages more efficiently than adults (Moore 1999). This appears to be due to changes in the brain that occur during puberty: language is lateralized to the left side of the brain which results in the brain becoming less “elastic,” according to Moore. Thus, children's brains are more like a sponge, and can absorb information about languages with ease, whereas adults have more trouble.

Bilingual people have been a popular topic of study for linguistic researchers. There are competing hypotheses regarding how children are able to acquire two languages at the same time. The Unitary Language System Hypothesis ascertains that children input information from both languages into the same system in the brain. The Dual Language System Hypothesis states that each individual language a child speaks is acquired through separate language systems from the start. After focusing on this language system debate, researchers began to examine the inter-connectivity and divisions between the two developing language systems. They focused on the cross-linguistic influence between the two languages.

There is also debate surrounding whether the acquisition and knowledge of two or more languages can actually change a child's development. Do the two languages interfere with each other in the brain, leading to poor proficiency in each language? Or, does the knowledge of two different languages along with their lexicons and grammatical rules give children an edge, resulting in improved cognitive development and school achievement? There is substantial evidence that bilingual children differ from monolingual children in a variety of ways.

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