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Academic Paper


Title: Bilingual language acquisition and theories of diachronic change: Bilingualism as cause and effect of grammatical change
Author: Jürgen M Meisel
Institution: Universität Hamburg
Linguistic Field: Applied Linguistics; Historical Linguistics; Language Acquisition
Abstract: Children acquiring their first languages are frequently regarded as the principal agents of diachronic change. The causes and the precise nature of the processes of change are, however, far from clear. The following discussion focuses on possible changes of core properties of grammars which, in terms of the theory of Universal Grammar, can be characterized as reflecting different settings of parameters. In such cases, learners develop grammatical competences differing from those of speakers of the previous generation who provided the primary data serving as input for the developmental processes. It has been argued that reanalyses of this type must be conceived of as instances of transmission failure. Yet acquisition research has demonstrated that the human Language Making Capacity is extraordinarily robust, thus leading to the question of what might cause unsuccessful acquisition. Changing frequencies in use or exposure to data containing ambiguous or even contradictory evidence are unlikely to suffice as causes for this to happen. Language acquisition in multilingual settings may be a more plausible source of grammatical reanalysis than monolingual first language development. The study of contemporary bilingualism can therefore contribute to an explanation of diachronic change. Yet one such insight is that simultaneous acquisition of two languages (2L1) typically leads to a kind of grammatical knowledge in each language which is qualitatively not different from that of the respective monolinguals, obliging us to look for other sources of transmission failure. 2L1 acquisition in settings where one language is “weaker” than the other has been claimed to qualify as such. But I will argue that even such problematic cases do not provide convincing evidence of reanalysis. If, on the other hand, children receive sustained input from second language learners, or if their onset of acquisition is delayed, this can indeed lead to incomplete acquisition. I conclude that successive acquisition of bilingualism plays a crucial role as a source of grammatical change. In order for such changes to happen, however, grammar-internal and language-external factors may have to concur.

CUP at LINGUIST

This article appears in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition Vol. 14, Issue 2, which you can read on Cambridge's site or on LINGUIST .



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