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Review of  The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism

Reviewer: Ivan Lombardi
Book Title: The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism
Book Author: François Grosjean Ping Li
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 24.2826

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In their introductory chapter, the authors state the goal of their book: to provide a general introduction to the study of bilingualism from a psycholinguistic point of view. Their intent is explicitly pedagogical and they aim for accessibility rather than all-inclusive coverage.
Moreover, they highlight the effort to “give the various areas of the psycholinguistics of bilingualism equal weight” (p. 1). They also present approaches, methodologies, resources and tools recently applied to studies in the field.

François Grosjean begins the first chapter ('Bilingualism: A Short Introduction') with a definition of bilingualism -- and multilingualism -- that will accompany the reader throughout the whole book: “the use of two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life” (p. 5). He dispels some myths about bilinguals (e.g. as natural translators and having no accent in their languages), and discusses several criteria to describe bilingualism. He accounts for fluency, use, time, language history, language loss, in a dynamic process that he labels 'the wax and wane of languages', then presents his Complementary Principle (Grosjean 1997) and the notion of language mode. The last two paragraphs focus on the analysis of monolingual and bilingual interaction -- with particular emphasis on code-mixing phenomena --, and to biculturalism, respectively.

The second chapter ('Speech Perception and Comprehension') opens Section I (Spoken Language Processing). Here Grosjean briefly illustrates the general process of speech recognition and the creation of a mental representation of meaning. He then discusses a centrepiece in the study of bilingualism: the processing of bilingual speech. Recent studies in psycholinguistics, reviewed here, agree that language processing is nonselective most of the time. This means that, when a bilingual hears input, it does not activate separate processing mechanisms, but rather the bilingual's language systems simultaneously. Caution should be exercised, though, as several factors may influence this process, to the point that it can be even transformed into a selective process in essence. For instance, when the input contains elements that are not shared between the bilingual's two languages, language-specific elements are likely to activate only the corresponding language system. He then reviews the base-language effect and several studies on the recognition of code-mixing in bilingual speech. He concludes by presenting Léwy and Grosjean's “computational model of bilingual lexical access” (p. 46), BIMOLA (adapted from Grosjean 2008).

Chapter three ('Speech Production') is the last written by Grosjean, and closes the first section. Its central aim is to investigate whether language production in bilinguals is language selective or nonselective. The chapter begins with an in-depth analysis of our internal mechanisms that transform thought into speech. It covers the topic of monolingual speech production in bilinguals, providing experimental evidence that “both languages of a bilingual are jointly activated even in contexts that strongly bias toward one of them” (p. 53). As a consequence, Grosjean argues that the two languages are activated along a continuum, i.e. they can be less or more stimulated, or have diverse activation states, but they actively coexist in a dynamic process. The chapter ends with an account of spoken code-switching phenomena, asking whether they take more processing time than monolingual speech and also whether they exhibit regularities among languages, speakers and utterances.

Annette M.B. de Groot launches the Section II of the book -- Written Language Processing -- with a chapter eloquently entitled 'Reading'. De Groot introduces basic components of the reading process, from the orthographic level (the activation of sublexical and lexical memory units), through corresponding phonological representations, to the recognition of meaning and mental representation. One additional step, required to move to meaning at the sentence and text level, is parsing. In the end, the information will trigger the reader's background knowledge for final comprehension. She reviews a number of experiments on word recognition in bilingual individuals, mostly conducted using tests on homographs, neighbours and cognates. Based on the results, she suggests that bilingual word recognition may be language nonselective at both the lexical and the phonological activation levels. Several computational models of visual word recognition are then presented, most notably BIA, SOPHIA, BIA+. In the end, de Groot summarizes the findings of even more studies conducted on the sentence processing; she reports that monolinguals and bilinguals seem to undergo a similar semantic processing, while they have a qualitatively different syntactic processing -- based on the proficiency in the language.

Rosa M. Manchón provides the final chapter of the Section II: 'Writing'. Her goal is to “explore the defining characteristics of bilingual text production processes” (p. 100), and she pursues it by initially explaining the general process of writing (condensed into three phases: planning, formulation, revision). Later, she compares the writing processes and strategies of monolinguals and bilinguals, highlighting the results of several studies. Broadly, it seems that bilingual writers tend to rely more on their first language and its specific 'higher-order' strategies, even when writing in another language. This mediator role of the L1 seems to hold also at advanced levels of L2 proficiency. Manchón closes by discussing possible transfers of writing skills across the bilingual's languages. She agrees with Cumming (1989) that these skills may be indeed transferable, but she advises the reader that such analyses of writing performance need to be combined with further variables, like language proficiency, general writing expertise and education.

Section III, on Language Acquisition, is introduced by chapter six ('Simultaneous Language Acquisition'). Virginia Yip covers a foundational topic in psycholinguistics, i.e. the acquisition of two or more languages in the early childhood. From the beginning, she adopts the notion of Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA), to distinguish the peculiar state of bilingual children and avoid easy stereotypes, like their having two mother tongues. In fact, she points out that “[i]n the case of simultaneous acquisition of two languages, neither language can be said to come first, [...] although in practice a dominant or stronger language can often be identified” (p. 120). Yip examines several theoretical and methodological issues, like the quantity of input and its effects on the child's language acquisition; the natural unbalanced development; the domains of La and Lα use; cross-linguistic influences; language pairs, mode, choice, and dominance; data collection. In the end, the author shows the stages of language development in early bilinguals as compared to that of monolingual children. She also accounts for code-mixing and cross-linguistic influences, which are reported in preschool bilinguals. Eventually, she extends the discussion to include trilinguals, briefly mentioning both quantitative and qualitative differences in their language development.

Chapter seven ends the section on language acquisition, and analyses 'Successive Language Acquisition'. Ping Li suggests than, in this case, “there is a relatively clear distinction between the learner's first language and second language” (p. 145) -- the first being most likely native and dominant, while the second is added later, and is probably weaker, less used and/or confined in a domain. The author reviews the effect of age in SLA (second language acquisition) contexts. He challenges the notion of a critical period and lists the main experimental data that has brought researchers to prefer the term 'age of acquisition' (AoA). L2 AoA does in fact explain some evidence in comparisons of early bilinguals with adult language learners, such as the discrimination and the production of non-native sounds. Li then discusses the influences that L1 and L2 exert on each other in adult learners, such as the acquisition of lexicon and its relationship with pre-existing concepts, cross-language interactions and the acquisition of grammar. He concludes by confirming that, as stated throughout the book, the interplay between the two languages is indeed dynamic, even when they are acquired sequentially.

Chapter eight ('Bilingual Memory') opens Section IV on Cognition and the Bilingual Brain. De Groot takes into account the long-term declarative memory, mainly in the form of semantic memory. She begins with Weinreich's (1953) traditional description of bilingualism (coordinative, compound, subordinative) and examines the ongoing chronology of studies and models on the organisation of the bilingual mental lexicon. She emphasises more recent models that do “not represent a word's meaning in a single memory unit [but assume] 'distributed' representations, where the word's meaning is spread out over a number of more elementary conceptual units” (p. 177), such as de Groot (1992) and Dong et al. (2005). At a later stage, the author expands to include the attainment of semantic differences between languages in bilinguals. In the end, she presents experimental data on episodic memory, showing that language is encoded in bilinguals' autobiographical memory traces.

Ellen Bialystok and Raluca Barac co-author chapter nine ('Cognitive Effects'). They aim is to demonstrate that bilingualism has a powerful effect on the development and the conservation of crucial cognitive skills. They first take into account language and metalinguistic abilities, reviewing data from tests of monolinguals' and bilinguals' language proficiency. They state that, when all other possible influencing factors are removed, bilingualism is very likely to be responsible for “enhanced metalinguistic awareness … for different aspects of language: syntactic awareness, ... word awareness … and, to a lesser extent, phonological awareness” (p. 196). This is probably true, they add, especially when the child's two languages share the same alphabet and a similar phonology.
The writers show that bilingualism speeds up the acquisition of literacy, because it enhances related cognitive skills – the ones that are usually known as being part of the executive control system. These skills include “attention, selection, inhibition, monitoring, and flexibility” (p. 202). Bialystok and Barac do not just focus on early bilingualism, though. They conclude by highlighting the positive effects of speaking two languages in adulthood and provide that bilingualism may significantly delay dementia in older age.

The last chapter ('Neurolinguistic and Neurocomputational Models'), by Li, chronicles the connections between neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics in the field of bilingualism -- with a particular emphasis on recent models and tools. Li offers a brief history of neurolinguistics and its debates on brain localisation and organisation, as well as the never-ending search for a 'language switch' in the head. Then he describes the current horizon on cognitive neuroscience, along with two relatively new techniques: event-related potentials (ERPs) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). His goal is to introduce the reader to these now widely available neuroimaging tools, and to describe the results that researchers have achieved with them to date (e.g. the 'electrophysiological signatures' of bilingualism). The last paragraph covers neurolinguistic computational modeling. Here the author reviews several models based on connectionist frameworks; among others, BIMOLA, BIA, SOMBIP and its evolution DevLex (Li et al. 2004).

The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism surely keeps its promises. Grosjean, Li and the other authors provide a holistic introduction to the field, and they succeed in presenting the content in an informative, clear and accessible way.

Undergraduate students are mentioned in the Introduction as a possible audience, and I would agree: several features of the book make it an excellent handbook for people those approaching the study of bilingualism from a psycholinguistic point of view. The chapters are all brief (ca. 20 pages long) structured in parallel fashion, with an initial presentation of topics and aims, three to four main sections and several subsections. Every chapter ends with three or four research questions, a box with further advised readings and the references pertaining to the chapter. The language used is also accessible: technicalities are explained and contextualised, yielding a gain in clarity without a loss in authority. Pictures and diagrams are provided when describing theoretical models and experimental practices.

For the researcher, the book is an up-to-date 'summa' of the study of bilingualism, and one may appreciate the thorough review embedded in the chapters (unfortunately, the handbook-like structure does not provide a separate section for literature review) and the in-depth analyses of experiments and tests -- paragraphs that students are more likely to underestimate and skip. Furthermore, scholars will value the sections describing approaches, methodologies and techniques used by fellow colleagues.

Researchers and students of language education, and perhaps language teachers, may also find this book interesting. It will not provide ready-to-use knowledge, but also important insights that can be put into practice (and turn into interesting data).

To complete the picture, the book is coherent, progresses smoothly, and is overall very well edited (I was able to spot only some minor inconsistencies in the reference style). This book exceeded my expectations, and I find it difficult to point out shortcomings, as it is perfectly aligned with its declared aims. I did expect to find a section or a box on sign language; this topic, however, probably fell outside the scope determined by the authors, and is never mentioned.

Cumming, Alister. 1989. Writing expertise and second language proficiency. Language Learning 39. 81-141.

De Groot, Annette. 1992. Bilingual lexical representation: A closer look at conceptual representations. In Ram Frost & Leonard Katz (eds), Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, pp. 27-51. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Dong, Yanping, Gui, Shichun & MacWhinney, Brian. 2005. Shared and separate meanings in the bilingual mental lexicon. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 8. 221-238.

Grosjean, François. 1997. The Bilingual Individual. Interpreting 2(1/2). 163-187.

Grosjean, François. 2008. Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Li, Ping, Farkas, Igor & MacWhinney, Brian. 2004. Early lexical development in a self-organizing neural network. Neural Networks 17. 1345-1362.

Weinreich, Uriel. 1953. Languages in Contact: Findings and Problems. New York: Linguistic Circle of New York.
Ivan Lombardi is a Ph.D. candidate in Language Education at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan (Italy). His research focuses on the use of games and video games to enhance language learners' motivation in classroom contexts. He has major research interests in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics and non-verbal communication. He currently teaches 'Early Language Learning' at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Faculty of Education) and 'Digital game-based language learning' at the University of Nottingham (MA in Digital Technologies for Language Teaching).

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