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Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

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Review of  Bilingualism Across the Lifespan

Reviewer: Prue Goredema
Book Title: Bilingualism Across the Lifespan
Book Author: Elena Nicoladis Simona Montanari
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 30.581

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Bilingualism is a catch-all term that covers many convoluted language scenarios, running the gamut from those who grow up in dual-language households, those who comfortably use different languages for work versus familial settings, those who pick up or formally learn another language in later life and go on to gain perceptible proficiency in it and even polyglots who navigate from one tongue to another with seeming ease. Elena Nicolas and Simona Montanari make it clear at the outset of this volume that multilingualism of one stripe or another is the norm in many parts of the world. There are myriad avenues of investigation covered in this edited volume – from the cognitive aspects that obtain in infancy, childhood, adulthood and senescence to the psychological, social and political factors that define the environment in which the speakers live, study and work.

Students of language studies, education, psychology, anthropology and the various social sciences will find this to be an easily accessible text that gives a concise overview of what decades of research into language acquisition have taught us about bilingualism across the lifespan. Scholars and practitioners may also find this volume to be a handy reference work, since each chapter mentions the major findings and turning points in each area investigated.

Section I On Early Bilingualism

The book begins in earnest with a clarion call for a new take on the existing theories of first language acquisition, since bilingual children who from the outset acquire different languages simultaneously are no longer an obscure minority. Those linguists wedded to interpretations that see bilingualism as a case of two differentiated systems are losing ground, explain Suzanne Quay and Simona Montari. The chapter covers the main milestones in the research community’s continual journey and considers shifts in thinking about the lexical, grammatical and phonological development of bilingual children, as well as the role played by family language policies.

W. Quin Yow, Ferninda Patrycia and Susanne Flynn’s work entitled Code-Switching in Childhood used established measures such as the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Fourth Edition (PPVT-IV) number of different word roots (NDWR) mean length of utterances (MLU) to ascertain the effect of English/Mandarin code-switching on the linguistic performance of children enrolled at two Singaporean schools. They concluded that code-switching with peers in the school environment is just as important, if not more so, than home exposure to Mandarin and that such abilities are an indicator of language competence (p. 95).

Section II On Factors Affecting Bilingualism Across the Lifespan

The five chapters that comprise Section II of this volume give a concise overview of the myriad variables that make bilingualism a dynamic process across the lifespan. Sharon Unsworth gets the discussion underway by surveying some key impact factors in child bilinguals’ language development, such as parents, siblings, peers and the school environment, and she also highlights the differences between vocabulary acquisition and output, and control of grammar and morphosyntax in early bilinguals.

Those who have studied most strands of the Critical Period Hypothesis will recognise the research duo of David Birdsong and Jan Vanhove, who team up in Chapter 9 to revive some of their greatest hits. Various other studies that explore the significance of age of acquisition in determining ultimate attainment are also reflected upon, and this is conveniently done in chronological order, thus allowing newcomers to see how our understanding of the age factor in language acquisition has evolved from a reductively rigid adherence to the primacy of biological factors to one in which the complexities of socialisation are taken into account.

Section III On Academic Achievement and Literacy in Bilinguals

With just two chapters, this is the shortest section in this volume. Kathryn Lindholm-Leary gives readers an overview of how the matter of academic achievement has been approached by scholars, primarily in the United States where schooling models exist in which the target language and L1 (often Spanish though also other minority languages) are used in varying degrees. These so-called dual language programmes have produced many and varied results; however, one of the findings that Lindholm-Leary highlights is that bilingualism and, indeed biliteracy “may be enhanced to a greater degree when children receive higher levels of instruction in the partner language” (p. 209).

Chapter 12, entitled Literacy in Adulthood: Reading in Two Languages shows how difficult it is to draw broad and binding conclusions about proficiency and efficiency in adult readers. In addition to accounting for individual speakers’ biographical information, researchers must also consider the syntactic properties of the languages spoken and the attendant cross-language effects as well as the cognitive strategies used in language selection. This reflection by Kroll, Gullifer and Zirnstein.focuses on pertinent research.

Section IV On the Cognitive Effects of Bilingualism

This section begins with a recapitulation of significant research findings on the process of bilingual language acquisition. Agnes Melinda Kovacs hearkens back to papers by Werner F. Leopold (1978) and Virginia Volterra and Traute Taeschner (1978) in alerting readers to the fact that bilingual infants initially have “a single language system for both languages” (p. 249). Volterra & Taeshner’s three-stage model of the development of bilingualism (which is here merely alluded to) was derived, in part, from longitudinal work Leopold conducted on his own daughter, Hildegard. These early works are well worth a view for those who wish to retrace the path that the field of language and cognition has taken in the past half a century. Kovacs’s chapter is a decent enough primer.

Elena Nicoladis picks up the baton in Chapter 14, where she discusses bilingualism in childhood and ponders whether children actually think differently when engaging their two languages and whether their cognitive development is significantly different from that of monolinguals. Max R. Freeman, Anthony Shook and Viorica Marian’s chapter on the Cognitive and Emotional Effects of Bilingualism in Adulthood clearly articulates the manner in which cognitive control, with its attendant interference suppression and response inhibition mechanisms, is a defining factor in our daily functioning. They explain how bilingualism promotes cognitive control and enhances the overall cognitive reserve, thus helping to stave off the onset of geriatric neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. This theme is carried on in the ensuing chapter by Hilary D. Duncan and Natalie A. Phillips.

In The Contribution of Bilingualism to Cognitive Reserve in Healthy Aging and Dementia, Duncan and Phillips define some key concepts and then mostly summarise the findings of others who have explored the many facets of senescence and memory, dementia, executive control and language. They refer to persuasive findings by Chertkow et al. (2010) that suggest that immigrants enjoy more cognitive vitality than non-immigrants. Chertkow et al.’s research was based on patient data gathered at their memory clinic in Montreal, Canada, whereby they had access not only to English-French bilinguals, but also to multilingual immigrants. They found that bilingualism alone does not offer a protective shield from Alzheimer’s disease; however, immigrants, particularly those who spoke four or more languages, had a delayed age of symptom onset. This is but one of the insightful studies that Duncan and Phillips include in their synopsis of the state of affairs in the area of aging and bilingualism.

Section V Conclusion

As to be expected, the conclusion is a concise summary of the themes presented in the volume.


From the outset, the editors indicate that their aim is to “present the latest research on bilingualism”; yet the simultaneous positioning of the work as a text for students of various related disciplines (such as the aforementioned linguistics and education) means that in more than a few chapters, much space is in fact dedicated to establishing first principles or giving accounts of how we came to know what we know about variability, input, codeswitching, attrition and other aspects of bilingualism. A case in point is Elena Nicoladis’s chapter entitled Bilingual Speakers’ Cognitive Development in Childhood wherein the cognitive flexibility of bilingual children is described. Using a narrative form that is replete with examples, the writer explains key principles of bilingualism succinctly, covering factors such as interaction, phonology and theory of mind. However, the new research findings that editors Nicoladis and Montanari have promised in the introduction are somewhat wanting in places.

Overall, all fifteen substantive chapters have much to commend them, for students and scholars alike are presented with a précis of the key points that have emerged from research into bilingualism across the lifespan.


Chertkow H, Whitehead V, Phillips N, Wolfson C, Atherton J, Bergman H. 2010. Bilingualism (but not always bilingualism) delays the onset of Alzheimer disease: Evidence from a bilingual community. Alzheimer Disease Associated Disorders, 24 (2) (2010): 118-125. doi: 10.1097/WAD.0b013e3181ca1221

Leopold, W. (1978). A child’s learning of two languages. In E. Hatch (Ed.), Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings (p. 23–32). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Volterra, V., Taeschner, T. (1978). The acquisition and development of language by bilingual children. Journal of Child Language, 5, pp. 311-326. Reprinted (2007) in In L. Wei (ed) The bilingual reader, 301 - 320. New York: Routledge.
Prue Goredema, MBS is a lecturer and researcher in Second Language Acquisition Theory at Technische Universität Chemnitz, Germany. Her work covers TESOL Methodology, eLearning and Curriculum Planning & Materials Development.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9783110610468
Pages: 353
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