Language Proficiency

Bilingualism affects the course and development of a child's language proficiency, which is comprised of both language exposure (in the form of input) and language practice (in the form of output). It affects categories of language differently and can have a positive, negative, or neutral impact upon the ability of one to speak or perform in an acquired language. Bilingual children find it easier to express a specific idea in one language rather than the other. Bilingual children transition through periods when one language is more prominent than the other. Some children may begin to prefer one language over another, especially if the language is spoken more frequently in their school or home environment. Although bilingual children may become more attached to one language, they do not lose sight of either language. Applying language skills from one language to another is a critical cognitive function that makes it easier for an individual to navigate the learning process successfully.

Lexical Knowledge and Syntax

Bilingualism negatively affects a child's lexical inventory of each language. According to Bialystok, “…bilingual children tend to have a smaller vocabulary in each language than monolingual children in their language” (Bialystok 2005, p. 2). In addition to lexical inventory bilingualism affects a child's ability to put together words in a sentence (syntax). It might be more difficult for someone that is bilingual to form a proper English or second language sentence than someone who is a monolingual speaker. A native speaker of Portuguese and English might say, “I have fever”, instead of “I have a fever” because in Portuguese it is not necessary to use a determinant before a noun. When forming an English sentence, this speaker includes Portuguese syntax. In addition, children who are bilingual are able to learn novel words more efficiently, possibly because their learning of language is more flexible than that of children who are monolingual.

Furthermore, research has shown that when a child speaks a second language at home that is not the one used in the dominant culture, it becomes his weaker language compared to the language used in his school and community. In one study, two groups of Mandarin–English bilingual children (3–5-year-olds, 6–8-year-olds) participated in a picture identification and naming task in both languages. Results revealed age-related growth in the English but not the Mandarin vocabulary. Composite vocabulary was larger than either single-language vocabulary in the younger children but was similar to English vocabulary in the older children. Furthermore, children showed a larger receptive–expressive modality difference in their weaker language (Mandarin) than in their stronger language (English) (Sheng 2006, p. 1).

Written Language Affects Reading Ability

Bilingualism can have a positive impact on many life processes, such as a child's cognitive ability as well as a child's ability to read. Someone who is bilingual has a stronger repertoire of phonological, morphological, and syntactic skills. These skills provide a person who is bilingual with the necessary basis for learning how to read (University of Haifa 2011).

However, in accessing the positive impact of bilingualism, one must also examine the similarities of the linguistic systems in question. Bialystock concluded that “…the knowledge of another language and skill in reading that language…influences children's literacy acquistion. However, this influence might diminish or even disappear for two languages that use different writing systems.” Similarities in written language systems will have a positive impact upon a child's ability to learn addiitonal languages for both bilingual and second language learners (Bialystok Luk & McBride-Chang, 2005). If a child speaks both English and French he will have an accelerated reading ability compared to a monolingual speaker because the written language systems are similar. Both bilingual and second language learners exhibited phonological abilities that transferred across languages regardless of whether their written language systems were similar. However, the same could not be said for decoding. Bialystock found that if a child is bilingual in both English and Chinese, he will not exhibit any advantage nor show a deficit when learning how to read because those written language systems are very distinct. Interestingly, competence in one language will always be weaker for those who learn a second language years after learning their first language. Finally, first-language measures can be useful in the early identification of children at risk for difficulty in learning to read in a second language (Jared, Cormier, Levy & Wade-Woolley 2011).

Second Language Acquisition

Bilingualism can be established when someone learns a second language, but for someone to maintain the ability to understand and speak both langauges they must be used continually (Taylor 1970, p.9). Factors that affect one's ability to learn a second language are the age of the learner, sex of the learner, prior language training, and other characteristics such as aptitude & intelligence, plus a sympathetic orientation toward the language being learned. Learning another language in childhood in the early years of school fosters a greater capacity for one to learn a language and use it later in life (Taylor 1970, p. 7). There has been no data collected on whether gender differences are a prominent factor in the ability to acquire another language, but based on information collected from the Modern Language Aptitude test, girls score higher on foreign language exams while in school (Taylor 1970, p.7). Other important characteristics to have when learning a second language are motivation, cooperation and being actively engaged. The motivation for learning a second language can be classified into four categories: communication, emotional involvement, religion, and cultural literacy (Taylor 1970, p. 8). How one feels about these four main domains impacts his/her ability to learn a second language. The strongest reason for acquiring a second language is typically social, that is the desire to communicate.

Learning a Third Language

Third language acquisition is a very common phenomenon all over the world, in natural as well as formal contexts, and takes place in a large number of diverse sociolinguistic situations. Bilingualism can have a positive affect on third language acquisition when the socioeducational acquisition context is additive and favorable to the minority language. In a study that tested how bilingualism affects the acquisition of a third language, those students whose mother tongue was Russian demonstrated higher proficiency not only in the new language, English, but also in Hebrew (University of Haifa 2011). The researchers found that fluency and skills in one language assist in the language acquisition of a second language, and possessing skills in two languages can boost the learning process of a third language (University of Haifa 2011).

The Impact of Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition Upon Writing Skills

While there has been significant research on the positive impact on additional language acquisition of bilingualism and second language m1.jpg acquisition when the writing systems of the languages in question are similar, there does not appear to have been a lot of research on the reverse, that is the impact of bilingualism et al upon writing skills. Horning (1987) does compare proficiency in academic writing with second language acquisition since “…academic English is a whole new language (Horning 1987, p.5).” She further theorizes that the written form of a language is a distinct linguistic system (Horning 1987, p. 7). Accordingly one should be careful about drawing any conclusions about the transference of writing skills based upon studies that compared phonological development and decoding of multiple languages. However, one can still speculate that just as similar writing systems will positively impact linguistic acquisition of a second and third language, knowledge of a similar writing system would help writing acquisition in another language. Conversely, knowledge of one writing system would (speculatively speaking) likely have little or no impact upon learning writing in a completely dissimilar writing system, such as English and Mandarin. Studies of these hypothesis would likely be extremely useful in devising approaches for teaching writing to bilingual and second language students.