LINGUIST List 7.353

Thu Mar 7 1996

Disc: Bilingualism

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1., Disc: Raising children bilingually (response to "advice")

Message 1: Disc: Raising children bilingually (response to "advice")

Date: Sun, 03 Mar 1996 19:41:01 EST
From: <>
Subject: Disc: Raising children bilingually (response to "advice")
Dear Linguist List:

I was meaning to take a crack at McMahon's provocative query
(Feb 6) about the best way to raise bilingual children, and
before I got around to cleaning out my email account so I
could do so, Edgar Monterroso's plaintive posting appeared
(2/29). Maybe I can respond to both at once, NOT to suggest
that I have any more definitive answers for them than anyone
else has.

Generally, when I tell people I'm a psycholinguist, I get a
polite, but vacant "oh" in response; when I say I study
bilingual babies, EVERYONE has a theory to regale me with.
With so much advice and non-advice going around, it does
seem hard for a parent to figure out what to do. I don't
know what *I'D* do if I were a parent of young children
again. (I still don't believe that I raised two monolingual
children in a bilingual city, but I did, despite thinking
even then that I should try to help them be bilingual. But
I didn't, or I didn't do enough, at least for one of them.)

My impression as a researcher and as a parent and as a
friend and teacher of bilinguals is that it's not as easy as
we think to become bilingual, but it's definitely worth
whatever extra effort it costs. Tons of people, most who
learn the languages as children, manage to do it (just as
the overwhelming majority do NOT manage to do it from high
school classes). The questions are how? and how well?

McMahon and Monterroso raise a number of interesting
questions for which I have nothing to add from first hand.
One question we *have* been investigating in our lab regards
the delay question. It is part of the folk wisdom that
"bilinguals are slower," but we have tried to make the
comparison carefully in a number of domains, and we have not
found any statistically supported "delay" of a group of
bilinguals compared to a matched group of monolinguals.
(This is not to say that it might not exist and that we just
couldn't find it, but another possibility we mean to suggest
is that many of the comparisons in the popular literature
are not careful comparisons with adequate controls.) At the
AAAS in Atlanta, February 1995, D.K. Oller presented a
review of our results in several studies (of babbling onset,
time of first words, early lexical development, early
phonological development, receptive vocabulary in preschool
and elementary school, and college admissions testing) and
the paper is now in submission. I could send Dr. Monterroso
the references for the studies reviewed, but I get the
impression what he needs is not the studies, but the

I am always amazed when I hear speech therapists say the
child is "6 months behind" or give some other precise
number. If you know anything about normative statements for
early speech, it is the wide range of "typical" development.
If the therapist is giving an average value (as is available
say with the MacArthur Communicative Inventory), of so many
words known at say 30 months, then obviously by definition,
50% of the monolinguals are also below that level. I don't
think one would say "delayed" unless one were in the bottom

The one area where we might see reduced rates of acquisition
vis-a-vis monolinguals is precisely the area mentioned by
Dr. M with respect to his nieces and nephews: productive
vocabulary. That is, it appears to us that while bilinguals
know as many "lexicalized concepts" in their two languages
as monolinguals', that the concepts may be distributed
between the two languages. If bilinguals knew all the same
words in both languages, they might then know "twice as many
words as monolinguals" and therefore, not "less" than a
monolingual in her one language. But as far as we can see,
most people know at least a few words in each language
uniquely. If a monolingual knows 100 words (for easy
reference) and a bilingual knows 85 words in language 1 and
85 words in language 2, but of those sets of 85 words, 70
are translation equivalents and 15 are unique, look at what
that means. The bilingual also knows 100 words, but a test
in language 1 will show only 85 words and a test in language
2 will show only 85 words--so he's "slow." That would be in
the situation where a translation equivalent were completely
"free"--that is, it didn't cost the individual anything in
memory storage or retrieval. There has been some basic
psycholinguistic research on this, but I don't know any
definitive statements one can make--but chances are when
someone figures out the "equivalences", there will be some
cost of the translation equivalent, so it's quite possible
that the bilingual of equivalent "intelligence" will not
have 100 words, but some number less than that. (We've been
working to demonstrate this, but it hasn't been quantified
anywhere--to our knowledge.)

For Mr. McMahon's friends, worried about the children's SAT
scores in 15 years, there may, in fact, be some decrement in
that kind of performance. In a study of SAT scores for
University of Miami students (published in the Hispanic
Journal of the Behavioral Sciences, 1993), I found that
bilingual students with equivalent grade point averages got
significantly lower SAT scores on average than monolinguals
(perhaps based on the heavy vocabulary components of those
tests). Since one of the major goals of SAT scores is to
predict college success, the fact that the bilinguals
achieved the success without the score, puts the SCORE in
doubt, not the bilingual. I can't guarantee, though, that
the college admissions establishment will see it that way
when their time comes to pass through that gauntlet.

It seems to me from McMahon's summary of Feb 21 that the
Linguist List generated good advice for him. (I hope the
Monterossos get hold of it.) The fact that all the advice
doesn't agree may attest to the fact that there is more than
one way to become bilingual. Clearly, there are many
different circumstances in which it happens, and the
"prescription" would be different for each one. For me the
important question will not be whether bilinguals at any
given moment know twice as much as monolinguals in each
domain of language (isn't that what the "equal monolingual"
question requires?), but who(m) do bilinguals get to talk
with and to identify with culturally, and what do those
people mean to them.

Well, I didn't mean to get on a soapbox about it, but this
seems to me one of the areas where linguists need to inform
and perhaps influence public attitudes and where we can do
so without getting so involved in the more technical aspects
of the questions. I think most of what I've said is just
common sense, but that doesn't mean it's not open to
differences of opinion as to what is more or less sensical,
or that I'm not capable of having misstated something. I
would like to hear about other people's attitudes and ideas
on the matter.

Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D. (added in case they have to
quote me to the speech therapist!)
University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group
(with D.K. Oller, R. Eilers, M. Fernandez, V. Umbel, and V.
Mueller Gathercole, "overseas" consultant)
c/o English, Box 248145, Coral Gables, FL 33124 USA
305-284-3906/fax: 305-284-5635
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue