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Review of  Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism

Reviewer: Kara Tiffany McAlister
Book Title: Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism
Book Author: Silvina A Montrul
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 21.1599

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AUTHOR: Montrul, Silvina A.
TITLE: Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism
SUBTITLE: Re-examining the Age Factor
SERIES: Studies in Bilingualism 39
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2008

Kara T. McAlister, Arizona State University


In ''Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism: Re-examining the age factor'',
Montrul investigates how the processes of attrition, incomplete acquisition and
fossilization in first language (L1) and second language (L2) acquisition are
related to each other. In doing so, Montrul challenges traditional assumptions
about the critical period and contributes to the current attempts to tease apart
age-related factors in both L1 and L2 acquisition. This book combines an
in-depth overview of the field and Montrul's own extensive research in bilingual
language acquisition, and provides a comprehensive introduction to a variety of
age-related studies in first and second language acquisition without extensively
focusing on the critical period hypothesis (CPH) in second language acquisition
(SLA). In fact, the main argument of the book is that the critical period for
first language acquisition is also salient in bilingual first language
acquisition and can explain situations of L1 attrition and incomplete
acquisition as well contribute to the discussion on incomplete acquisition in
the L2.


Chapter One offers an overview of the premises of Montrul's research, focusing
on foundational concepts such as the critical period, particularly in first
language acquisition, and age parameters in bilingualism (simultaneous vs.
sequential, early vs. late). In juxtaposition to this brief introduction, a
contrastive overview of SLA is provided in Chapter Two, with a specific focus on
critical period hypothesis research. The review of CPH research is
comprehensive, and illustrates the diversity of conclusions and approaches in
the field. Additionally, Montrul provides a concise overview of the state of
the field (pp. 57-58), including a list of questions that CPH research has yet
to address. Additionally, Table 2.9 offers an overview of seminal studies for
and against the CPH in SLA, which is a useful reference (p. 56).

Chapter Two also introduces the two main hypotheses of Montrul's research, which
are examined in detail throughout the rest of the chapters. Hypothesis 1 states
that ''[i]f L1 attrition occurs in children, it will be more severe than L1
attrition in adults. That is, language loss should be more dramatic in early
than in late bilingualism'' (p. 60). This suggests that attrition will manifest
itself differently in early bilingualism and in late bilingualism, or, more
specifically, that linguistic domains will be affected differently depending on
when L1 loss occurs.

In Hypothesis 2, Montrul posits that ''[i]f language attrition occurs within
early (pre-puberty) bilingualism, it will be more severe in simultaneous
bilinguals (exposed to the two languages very early) than in sequential
bilinguals (when the L1 was acquired before the L2)'' (p. 60). In other words,
simultaneous bilingual children should be more susceptible to L1 language loss
than sequential bilingual children who learn the majority language through
formal education. This is certainly a hypothesis worth considering,
particularly in instances where children's proficiency is being evaluated and

Chapter Three surveys the field of L1 attrition in adults and offers both an
overview of current research as well as introduction to theoretical models of
attrition: the regression hypothesis, the generative approach, and the
activation threshold hypothesis. In addition, Montrul explores the relationship
between L1 attrition and L2 fossilization in detail, and concludes that it is
unlikely that cross-linguistic effects in attrition and fossilization are a
product of the same process, though more research is necessary (p. 89).
Further, evidence reviewed in the chapter supports Hypothesis 1, which states
that an earlier onset of bilingualism leads to more severe L1 loss.

Whereas Chapter Three examined the current state of research in adult L1
attrition, Chapter Four examines what is known about attrition and incomplete
acquisition during early childhood. The chapter first addresses the various
issues of bilingualism in early childhood, such as types of bilinguals
(simultaneous and sequential) and language development. Perhaps most
importantly in this chapter, differences between L1 attrition and incomplete L1
acquisition are addressed. As Montrul argues, special attention must be given
to data from children, who are still undergoing the process of first language
acquisition, in order to determine whether non-target production is a product of
attrition or incomplete acquisition. In the case of attrition, the burden is on
the researcher to demonstrate that the target structure had been fully acquired
before, while incomplete acquisition requires the demonstration that the
structure had not previously been acquired but is still characteristic of a
fluent or monolingual child at the same developmental stage. In this case,
Montrul persuasively argues that more longitudinal studies of children's
bilingual language development are necessary in order to understand how
incomplete acquisition and L1 attrition progress (p. 109). In addition to
attrition and incomplete acquisition, Montrul also looks into the case of total
L1 loss, such as with international adoptees.

Chapter Four concludes with a section on language dominance and the weaker
language. In particular, Montrul refutes the Weaker Language as L2 Hypothesis
(Schlyter 1993), arguing that equating the weaker language with an L2 assumes
reduced or unavailable access to UG, which cannot be the case in bilingually
developing children. Montrul then goes on the propose the Weaker Language as L1
Hypothesis, which simply states that the acquisition of the weaker language in
simultaneous bilingual children is acquired through the same means as the more
dominant language (p. 126).

Chapter Five surveys what is known about bilingualism in middle childhood and
adolescence, and starts with an overview of language learning at school for both
monolingual and bilingual children. This section teases out the relationship
between literacy and first language acquisition and demonstrates how literacy is
a vehicle for further development in the first language(s), indicating that
first language acquisition is not complete by the time children enter formal
schooling. Montrul does not draw a distinction between literacy and academic
language, although literacy clearly encompasses academic language in her
analysis. The BICS/CALP distinction (Cummins 2003, for instance) and other
paradigms of academic language such as SLIC (MacSwan & Rolstad 2003) are notably
not addressed here, although Montrul is focused on the effect of academic
experiences on bilingualism, whereas the above researchers are more concerned
with the effect of bilingualism on academic achievement.

The rest of the Chapter Five goes on to detail what happens when
minority/heritage language children enter schools in either bilingual or
majority language settings. In summary, research conducted on various groups of
minority language children indicates that ''[p]rogressive loss of L1 skill is
likely in both simultaneous bilingual children and in sequential bilingual
children'' (p. 159). Montrul goes on to point out that continued use of the L1
(minority language) does not impede L2 (majority language) development, though
the lack of minority language support at school and the almost inevitable
introduction of the majority language to the home lead to a deterioration in L1
development. As detailed below, this has especially important implications for
those researchers who focus on minority language education and maintenance.

Following the exploration of incomplete acquisition in early and late childhood,
Chapter Six turns to incomplete acquisition in adulthood, where the focus is
adult heritage speakers. The discussions in this chapter explore the lasting
effects of L1 attrition and/or incomplete L1 acquisition in bilingual adults.
An extensive overview of what an incomplete L1 grammar could look like in an
adult is offered, with a focus on studies exploring phonology, inflectional
morphology, syntax, and the lexicon. Finally, Montrul tentatively tests
Hypothesis 2 by comparing incomplete acquisition in simultaneous and early
sequential bilinguals.

Chapter Seven goes on to detail how incomplete L1 and L2 acquisition are related
to each other, specifically in adult language learners. In particular, Montrul
explores how heritage language learners differ from traditional L2 learners in
formal language learning contexts. Her analysis includes a set of three
predictions regarding heritage language learners which are tested on conclusions
drawn from existing studies. Based on these conclusions, there may be a ''weak
advantage'' for adult heritage language learners, despite incomplete L1
acquisition, but more research in this area is needed (p. 248).

The implications of the studies and conclusions presented throughout the book
are discussed in Chapter Eight. In particular, Montrul emphasizes that the
studies reviewed demonstrate that ''early exposure to a language - while
certainly necessary - is not a sufficient condition for complete L1 (and
probably L2) acquisition'' (p. 262). One implication of this is that phenomena
such as fossilization and incomplete acquisition, as found in L2 studies, are
not unique to either adults or L2 acquisition. Children, despite being seen as
ideal language learners, are susceptible to interruptions and variations in
language input for far longer than previously thought. By plotting age and
proficiency correlations in L1 loss and L2 acquisition, Montrul sketches out an
approximate age range where children are less vulnerable to L1 loss/incomplete
acquisition, but not yet vulnerable to the elusive critical period in second
language acquisition, which seems to be between the ages of 8 and ten years of
age (p. 267). In a similar fashion, Montrul also addresses the question of
input, teasing out issues of quantity and quality in bilingualism and second
language acquisition.


As stated in Chapter One, Montrul's intended audience is graduate students and
researchers who are interested in age effects in language acquisition (p. 25),
and ''Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism'' does an excellent job of detailing
the state of research in the field without assuming much background knowledge.
However, a general understanding of language acquisition, particularly first
language acquisition, is also expected, as specifics of language acquisition,
such as progression and developmental stages, are not addressed. Finally, as
Montrul is coming from a generativist perspective, studies largely focus on
modular aspects of language, such as phonology and morphology, although some
studies reviewed are also psycholinguistic.

For those researchers who work with minority language children, Montrul's work
undoubtedly explores an interesting line of questioning, particularly in terms
of bilingual education. According to Montrul's own work and overview of
existing research, early sequential bilinguals are less susceptible to L1 loss
than simultaneous bilinguals, since early sequential bilinguals receive
monolingual-like input (generally) up until they enter school in the majority
language (Hypothesis 2). In contrast, simultaneous bilinguals receive bilingual
input up until they enter school in the majority language, leading to overall
reduced input in the minority language. As a product of reduced and unsustained
input, simultaneous bilinguals may undergo incomplete L1 acquisition or even
attrition. It follows that early sequential bilinguals may be better at
maintaining both languages, indicating that they are in fact better subjects for
bilingual research, rather than the traditionally-assumed simultaneous
bilinguals, at least in the case of minority language children schooled in the
majority language. In fact, Montrul points out early on that ''age of
acquisition is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for complete
acquisition'' (pg. 6), indicating that complete acquisition may also occur in
children who are not simultaneous bilinguals, i.e. early sequential bilinguals.
At the very least, this reasoning needs to be kept in mind in research done on
minority language speakers.

Finally, Montrul's case for the likelihood of incomplete acquisition or loss in
the L1 should be incorporated into renewed calls for bilingual education in the
face of English-only education. Specifically, literacy development in the first
language contributes to continued development in the minority language,
particularly where structures may be infrequent or more frequent in literacy
contexts and academic speech. Further, other research, such as MacSwan et al.
(2006), has shown that minority language literacy development contributes to
academic achievement in the majority language, further supporting the argument
that bilingual education is good not only for the minority language, but also
for the majority language and, most importantly, academic achievement overall.

As this book has clearly demonstrated, many questions remain regarding the
language development of different groups of bilinguals, and I join Montrul in
calling for more longitudinal research on development in bilingual children,
particularly in differences between simultaneous and early sequential bilinguals
and bilinguals raised in differing political and linguistic contexts. It is
clear that there are still large gaps in our understanding of age factors in
bilingualism, and Montrul has done well in pointing out where more research is
needed. Overall, ''Incomplete Acquisition in Bilingualism: Re-examining the age
factor'' is an extensive overview of the field and a welcome contribution to the
study of language acquisition and bilingualism.


Cummins, J. (2003). BICS and CALP: Origins and rationale for the distinction.
In C. B. Paulston, & G. R. Tucker (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: The essential
readings (p. 323-328). Oxford: Blackwell.
MacSwan, J., de Klerk, G., Thompson, M., & McAlister, K. T. (2006). Beyond
Program Effectiveness Research: Explaining Academic Achievement Differences
among English Language Learners, American Educational Research Association
Annual Meeting. April 6 - 11, San Francisco, CA.
MacSwan, J. & Rolstad, K. (2003). Linguistic diversity, schooling, and social
class: Rethinking our conception of language proficiency in language minority
education. In C. B. Paulston, & G. R. Tucker (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: The
essential readings (p. 330-340). Oxford: Blackwell.
Schlyter, S. (1993). The weaker language in bilingual Swedish-French children.
In Progression and Regression in Language. Sociocultural, Neuropsychological and
Linguistic Perspectives, K. Hyltenstam & A. Viberg (eds.), 289-308. Cambridge: CUP.

Kara T. McAlister is a Doctoral Candidate in the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education at Arizona State University. Her research interests include formal aspects of bilingualism, second language acquisition, and code-switching, as well as teacher preparation in bilingual education. She is currently working on her dissertation, which explores the relationship between age of acquisition and code-switching in Slovak-English bilinguals.