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 <>
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.

FENSON, L., P. DALE, S. REZNICK, E. BATES, D. THAL and S. PETHICK (1993). MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories: User's Guide and Technical Manual. San Diego, CA: Singular Publishing Group.

FENSON, L., V.A. MARCHMAN, D. THAL, P. DALE, S. REZNICK and E. BATES (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.

MATTOCK, K., M. MOLNAR, L. POLKA and D. BURNHAM (2008). The 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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