LINGUIST List 7.279

Thu Feb 22 1996

Sum: First or Second Language Acquisition

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Brian McMahon, Summary and new issues on first or second language acquisition

Message 1: Summary and new issues on first or second language acquisition

Date: Wed, 21 Feb 1996 19:12:54 PST
From: Brian McMahon <>
Subject: Summary and new issues on first or second language acquisition

In the two weeks since my message was originally posted, it has
generated 34 replies and they are still trickling in. The majority of
the responses came from persons from bilingual
families. Unfortunately, many did not say whether they are linguistics
professionals but, given where the message was posted, I assume that
they are unless they indicated otherwise. Given the level of interest
that has been generated in the issue, anyone who wants to repost the
message elsewhere may do so, although be warned that one reposting to
the Languages and Educational Mobility section of Inter-EU angered a
subscriber from Ireland (for lack of relevance), a country that is
officially bilingual. It may also be useful to get the opinions of
child psychologists and pediatricians (and give them your opinions),
since professionals from these fields gave the now-questioned advice.
To briefly review: As a sideline I hold English conversation sessions.
One of my students has two children, 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 years of age. The
family lives in Crdoba, a monolingual/monocultural city of one million
in the center of Argentina. The father works elsewhere and is with the
children every weekend. The city has no international schools but does
have "bilingual" schools with varying quality of instruction in
English. At the advice of "experts" they held off the introduction of
English to the older child solely because they were told that it would
delay his capacity in Spanish. However, the goal was always to ensure
first language, native proficiency in both languages. They have done
the same with the smaller child, a little girl. I asked for opinions
on this decision and also requested responses to a number of
questions: 1) The advisability of hiring an English tutor; 2) Whether
the situation is becoming urgent for the older child and if there is
an age limit for acquiring first language proficiency; 3) Whether any
structured materials (texts, storybooks, etc.) would be helpful and to
name them; and 4) When to introduce the younger child to English.
Although there were some differences of opinion on the effects, all
the responses said that the parents should have introduced English
immediately in the case of a normally developing child (thus also
answering the last question). The differences of opinion concerned
variations in children's abilities in their languages. The one
language/one parent rule was endorsed by everyone with one exception
who said that both parents should speak English at home since the kids
would pick up the local language anyway. Several said that children
who speak more than one language, after sorting them out, show greater
cognitive flexibility and generally greater abilities in
language-related activities. Only two respondents said that a tutor
would be advisable. The rest favored au pairs, small children (native
speakers), and vacations in English speaking countries. Most agreed
that the situation was not becoming urgent if the one parent/one
language rule is enforced and supplemented by stories, videos, rhymes
and other vocabulary building activities. Opinions about the "cut-off"
age ran from seven years of age to adolescence. It was interesting
that most addressed the question in absolute terms rather than
relative terms: I believe that given their unanimous opinion about
when to introduce English, they might have wanted to say "the more
exposure the better, especially before adolescence when it is probably
too late to attain first language proficiency." One (academic) reply
said that the question of native proficiency is not important. I would
reply that it is very important in a world of standardized tests that
can dramatically affect a person's future choices. I hope that we can
generate some more discussion of this issue. The question about
structured materials generated recommendations for "The Bilingual
Family Newsletter" (if anyone from the newsletter or Multilingual
Matters is reading this, please contact me with information); Sesame
Street, Raffi and Curious George books and/or videos; stories (in both
their Spanish and English versions in one case); etc. The only text
was "I Like English." Nearly all emphasized the use of English while
playing. I would appreciate it if anyone with other recommendations
would post them or send them directly to me. Finally, the responses
to the posting and an article in Newsweek since the posting have
generated more issues for further discussion: 1) The Newsweek article
(February 19) "Your Child's Brain" includes a section about perceptual
maps and language learning. The findings about language learning
discussed in this article, coming from another discipline, are
certainly fodder for discussion among linguists and are very relevant
to this case; 2) The parents are now considering whether to send the
older child to a bilingual nursery school for a half-day session with
90 minutes of instruction in English (the school has one teacher who
is a native speaker). They would like your opinions; 3) One respondent
said that correcting a child's pronunciation is taboo. Agreed?; 4) An
unresolved issue concerns whether the American father should speak
English only and inflexibly or leave the possibility of speaking
Spanish open for brief specific circumstances (emergencies, safety,
heart-to-heart talks). Opinions? In addition to being of possible
academic interest, this discussion is a clear demonstration of the
power of the Internet to contribute to the solution of practical
problems. Many thanks to everyone who participated or will

Brian McMahon
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