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LINGUIST List 21.216

Thu Jan 14 2010

Review: Language Acquisition: De Houwer (2009)

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        1.    Imme Kuchenbrandt, Bilingual First Language Acquisition

Message 1: Bilingual First Language Acquisition
Date: 11-Jan-2010
From: Imme Kuchenbrandt <immekuchenbrandt.de>
Subject: Bilingual First Language Acquisition
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AUTHOR: De Houwer, Annick
TITLE: Bilingual First Language Acquisition
SERIES: MM Textbooks
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2009

Imme Kuchenbrandt, Department of Linguistics and Literature (Romance languages),
University of Bremen


Annick De Houwer's publication is a textbook on bilingual first language
acquisition for advanced and undergraduate students from different backgrounds.
The book covers a wide range of subfields in the study of bilingualism,
including research methods, the acquisition of grammatical phenomena,
neurological studies on language processing and word recognition as well as
issues of bilingual socialization. The book aims at presenting useful
information both for those who want an overview over the state of the art as
well as for those who are familiar with bilingualism research, but need
information about aspects outside their
domain of specialization.

The author bases her work on numerous studies, covering the time span from the
beginnings of language acquisition research, e.g. Ronjat (1913), Tinbergen
(1919) and Leopold (1953), to recently published contributions such as
Grosjean's (2008) overview on bilingual development and Mattock et al.'s (2008)
study on early lexical tone perception.

Many acquisition studies concentrate on European languages, but de Houwer makes
an effort to include typologically diverse languages, drawing from studies on
Basque, Catalan, Chinese (Mandarin), Dutch, English, Farsi, French (Canadian and
European), German, Hebrew, Inuktitut, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian,
Norwegian, Portuguese, Slovak, Spanish, and Swedish.

The book is composed of a short preface, eight thematic chapters, several
appendices presenting special information linking up with the book chapters, a
glossary of linguistic terms, language and subject indices, and a bibliography.

The preface contains a description of the main goals and the basic structure of
the book. The main text of the chapters is divided into subsections and is
further complemented by 'boxes' that give background information or report on
case studies, illustrating the more general descriptions in the main text. The
reader may decide to read or to skip this additional material, depending on
his/her interests and knowledge. Each chapter closes with a summary box,
suggestions for study activities and recommended reading.

In chapter 1, ''Introducing bilingual first language acquisition,'' the
authorintroduces the basic concepts and main topics of the book. She defines
bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA) as ''the development of language in
young children who hear two languages spoken to them from birth'' (p. 2). As the
two languages are acquired simultaneously, she prefers to call them ''Language
A'' and ''Language Alpha'' instead of ''first'' and ''second language'' (p. 2).
BFLA is to be distinguished from monolingual first language acquisition (MFLA),
i.e. the acquisition of only one language from birth, as well as from early
second language acquisition, where originally monolingual children start to hear
a second language regularly during childhood, usually through day care or
preschool (p. 4). The author addresses socialization environments for BFLA as
well as the question of whether bilingual acquisition is a common phenomenon.
The last part of the chapter is dedicated to a short history of research in BFLA.

Chapter 2, ''Bilingual children's language development: an overview,'' sketches
the developmental paths in verbal interaction, socialization, and linguistic
development during the first five years of life. The author addresses the
question of whether BFLA and MLFA are distinct phenomena. Her position is that
on the one hand, BFLA and MFLA should not be taken as a norm for each other,
i.e. a ''bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person'' (Grosjean 1989), but
as representing research domains in their own right. On the other hand, BFLA
children show similar developmental paths as MFLA children do. Thus, growing up
with two languages does not obligatorily result in a delayed or otherwise
problematic acquisition process, contrary to the prejudices some people still
adhere to (p. 39).

Chapter 3, ''Research methods in BFLA,'' addresses the methodological background
for research in bilingual language acquisition. It provides the reader with
practical information on how to find subjects and on how to collect and process
data. Over the past years, researchers have developed a number of useful
resources and tools. Two of them are the Child Language Data Exchange System
(CHILDES, MacWhinney and Snow 1985, MacWhinney 2000), the largest online
database for child speech, and the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development
Inventory (CDI, Fenson et al. 1993, 2000), which is a questionnaire designed to
assess early vocabulary development. These are described in more depth and
evaluated with respect to different research purposes.

Question 4, ''Socializing environments and BFLA,'' discusses why not all
children that hear two languages from birth become active native speakers of
these two languages. The author addresses various factors that are very likely
to have an impact on bilingual development. These are (among others) the beliefs
and attitudes of parents, caretakers and the environment about bilingual
acquisition in general and the languages to be acquired, the ''linguistic
soundscapes'' (p. 98) in which children grow up, and the amount of input they
receive in each language, as well as specific discourse strategies that may or
may not require the use of a certain language.

Chapter 5, ''Sounds in BFLA,'' describes how children ''tune in'' (p. 26) to
their language(s). The author summarizes findings both from speech perception
and from early speech production. BFLA children are able to perceive differences
between their languages from birth. However, it is difficult to prove that their
languages differ in production, because there is much variation in the domain of
phonetics and phonology in monolingual children, and the same holds for
bilinguals. Although it might play a role which language-internal properties a
child has to master and how easy to perceive the caretakers' speech is, it is
still not very clear why some children are more successful in this domain than
others. With respect to BFLA, De Houwer points out that for the child, at least
one of the two languages is usually represented by fewer adult speakers than it
would be in the case of MFLA. For this reason, individual speech styles or
''local influences'' (p. 175) have a greater impact on the bilingual child's
development and may lead to non-standard pronunciation patterns. It should be
investigated carefully if unexpected child productions are related to specific
input properties before one attributes them to cross-linguistic influences or
developmental delays (p. 175).

Chapter 6, ''Words in BFLA,'' deals with the acquisition of the lexicon.
Bilinguals and monolinguals reach the same developmental milestones at similar
ages, and they use the same semantic processes (e.g. overextensions and
underextensions of meaning) during the acquisition process. A popular prejudice
concerning the lexicon is that bilinguals learn new words at a slower rate than
monolinguals because their input is divided between two languages. Studies that
investigate the relationship between input amount and the rate of vocabulary
learning show that there is indeed a correlation between the two, but they also
show that individual variation concerning the amount of input is enormous. A
bilingual child surrounded by talkative caretakers may hear many more words in
one of his/her two languages than an age-matched monolingual child in his/her
only language if that child's caretakers happen to be not particularly
talkative. As a group, bilingual children know as many words in each of their
languages as monolinguals do, and they know even more words if we take their two
languages together.
However, it may be the case that, due to input differences, the two languages of
a bilingual child do not develop in a parallel way. Furthermore, it is still
under debate whether BFLA children acquire one or two lexical systems, even if
they usually choose their words from the appropriate language from early on and
learn translation equivalents.

Chapter 7, ''Sentences in BFLA,'' traces the development from producing single
words to producing complex sentences. Topics that are discussed include the
typical acquisition paths in syntax and the more BFLA-specific questions of
language choice/language mixing, rate of development in the two languages,
cross-linguistic influences and the Separate Development Hypothesis (SDH; De
Houwer 2005). All children start with one-word utterances, which, during the
course of development, gain in morpho-syntactic complexity. Lexicon size seems
to be of importance for the rate at which syntactic structures develop, i.e.
children who already know many words at an early age develop their syntax faster
than children with a smaller vocabulary size do. According to numerous studies,
BFLA clearly is a case of first language acquisition with respect to syntactic
development, i.e. BFLA children and MFLA children essentially progress in the
same way and make the same sort of errors. By contrast, children who acquire
another language as an early second language (starting during their fourth year
of life or later) differ both from MFLA and from BFLA children in this regard;
they make errors that one will not observe in MFLA/BFLA utterances (p. 291).
Another popular belief about bilingualism is that BFLA children cannot separate
their two linguistic systems. Data from various language pairs support the view
that the two languages are indeed kept separate (this is the assumption referred
to as the Separate Development Hypothesis), despite the fact that bilinguals
often have a so-called 'weaker' and a 'stronger' language and may use elements
from two languages within one utterance (language mixing). This last point
should not be viewed as a symptom of unequal language skills and
cross-linguistic influence, as the rate of mixing in child language production
seems to depend on the caretakers' verbal behaviour. From about two and a half
years on, children are able to repair inappropriate language choices.

Chapter 8, ''Harmonious bilingual development,'' offers a more global view on
early child development in a bilingual setting and addresses popular myths
concerning bilingualism. The author emphasizes that hearing two languages from
birth does not necessarily lead to the complete acquisition of two first
languages, nor does it mean that children get confused or suffer
psychologically. Linguistic or psychological problems may arise, and they may be
intensified by the bilingual setting, but they are not triggered by the mere
fact that a child acquires two languages instead of only one. De Houwer's
general conclusion is that ''... young children are fully equipped to learn more
than one language from early on'' (p.329), but she concedes that there is still
much work to be done until the relevant factors for (non-)harmonious bilingual
development are fully understood.


Annick de Houwer grew up as an obviously happy bilingual herself, therefore it
is not astonishing that she has quite an optimistic view on bilingualism. Still,
she does discuss critical aspects of bilingual development that lead caretakers
or paediatricians to give parents inappropriate advice, to such as stopping the
use both languages with the child. It becomes clear that, for research and
therapy purposes, one should distinguish bilingual acquisition itself from
socialization in a bilingual environment, because if developmental problems
arise, they are rather unlikely to originate from neurological or linguistic
factors, and ceasing to speak one of the two languages will therefore not solve
the problems. Of course, a neat separation is impossible in everyday life,
because a child cannot acquire language without social interaction.

One might ask whether the definition of bilingual first language acquisition
(BFLA) used throughout this book is perhaps too narrow. The author only takes
into consideration children who hear two languages from birth. Recent studies
show that early second language (L2) acquisition may resemble first language
(L1) acquisition and differ from adult L2 acquisition as long as children start
acquiring their second language around the middle of their forth year of life or
earlier (see, e.g., Meisel (2009) and the subsequent discussion within the same
volume). Indeed, de Houwer does mention this point in chapter 7. I think it is
still reasonable to use the strict definition of BFLA, because her book is not
exclusively concerned with morpho-syntax (unlike Meisel's and his colleagues'
contributions), and to my knowledge it is still far from evident where the
critical periods in the subdomains of phonetics, phonology, word formation or
semantics/pragmatics lie. Furthermore, adhering to the narrower definition is
fully in line with her advice of keeping research methods as simple and as
transparent as possible.

One potential point of criticism is that the description of language acquisition
with respect to linguistic subfields such as phonology or syntax remains rather
superficial, and sometimes the presentation seems to be a bit simplistic. For
instance, in chapter 5 I miss a more explicit comment on language universals in
phonology and on the fact that all children start with the unmarked,
typologically wide-spread inventories and structures before they proceed to
complex and more language-specific structures. If one wants to test whether BFLA
children develop two distinct phonological systems, one has to look for the
right things in the right place, i.e. one has to make sure that the children are
no longer restricted to the unmarked, universal structures within the domain of
interest (see Paradis 1996 for a demonstration of where and how to find evidence
in early phonological acquisition).

Especially in the case of phonology, it could be very helpful to check if
corresponding monolingual children show cross-linguistic differences, because as
long as they do not, it is highly unlikely to find cross-linguistic differences
in BFLA. Although I generally agree with de Houwer's claim that MFLA should not
be taken as a norm for BFLA, a look at data from MFLA can help to avoid
unnecessary misjudgements in BFLA research. Overall, however, ''Bilingual First
Language Acquisition'' offers a wide range of relevant and intriguing
information, and the interested reader may rely on the comprehensive
bibliography for further reading.

I find De Houwer's book both easy to read and handy to use, thanks to the
coherent thematic structure and the neat layout. Each chapter could be used as a
basis for a learning unit, perhaps divided over several lessons in some cases.
The study activities she suggests are formulated as precise tasks; many of them
could be used as homework assignments or as classroom activities in a course on
bilingual language acquisition. However, she does not formulate model answers,
which in many cases would be impossible anyway. The author writes in a slightly
informal style without abandoning an essentially serious tone. Overall, her book
fully meets the goal it is designed for: presenting a good of BFLA research
topics and findings in a format that is suitable as an introductory reading and
as a practical guide to research methods in this field.


DE HOUWER, A. (2005). Early bilingual acquisition: Focus on morphosyntax and
the Separate Development Hypothesis. In KROLL, J. F. & A. M. B. DE GROOT
(eds.), Handbook of Bilingualism: Psychological Aspects, 30-48. New York: Oxford
University Press.

(1993). MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories: User's Guide and
Technical Manual. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group.

(2000). MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDIs) (2nd
edition). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

GROSJEAN, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two
monolinguals in one person. Brain and Language, 36, 3-15.

GROSJEAN, F. (2008). Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LEOPOLD, W. (1953). Patterning in children's language learning. Language
Learning 5, 1-14.

MACWHINNEY, B. (2000). The CHILDES Project: Tools for Analyzing Talk (3rd
edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

MACWHINNEY, B. and C. SNOW (1985). The child language data exchange
system. Journal of Child Language 12, 271-295.

developmental course of lexical tone perception in the first year of life.
Cognition 106, 1367-1381.

MEISEL, J. (2009). Second language acquisition in early childhood. Zeitschrift fuer
Sprachwissenschaft 28, 5-34.

PARADIS, J. (1996). Phonological differentiation in a bilingual child: Hildegard
revisited. Proceedings of the Boston University Conference on Language
Development 20, 528-539.

RONJAT, J. (1913). Le développement du langage observé chez un enfant bilingue.
Paris: Champion.

TINBERGEN, D. (1919). Kinderpraat. De Nieuwe Taalgids, 13, 1-16/65-86.


Imme Kuchenbrandt is a former member of the Research Centre on Multilingualism
at the University of Hamburg (Germany), where her work forcused on the early
bilingual acquisition of Spanish and German at the phonology-morphology
interface. Currently, she is a lecturer at the University of Bremen (Germany),
with a specialization in French-German contrastive inguistics.
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