E-Interview: Natascha Müller, Part 1 – Two Approaches to Bilingualism

Along with our series on blogs around the world we are also featuring e-interviews with researchers in the field of bilingualism.  We have the privledge this week to present the thoughts of Natascha Müller of the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.  We asked her why the study of bilingualism in children is relevant:

Projekt121109

The Wuppertal research group on bilingual first language acquisition, funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, German Science Foundation)

Row 1: Veronika Jansen, Natascha Müller, Elisa Turano, Mayte Jiménez Lopez, Laia Arnaus Gil
Row 2: Dunja Stachelhaus, Annette Pötzsch, Nadine Eichler, Vanessa Colado Miguel, Alban Beysson, Tobias Stallknecht, Marisa Patuto.

“Research in bilingual first language acquisition has been guided by two main approaches: Either it has been argued that bilingual children are not able to separate their two languages from early on since the two languages influence each other (Volterra & Taeschner 1978) or it has been shown that separation is possible from early on and that there is no evidence for cross-linguistic influence (Meisel 1989, Genesee 1989, Genesee, Nicoladis & Paradis 1995). Put differently, separation and cross-linguistic influence have been considered as being mutually exclusive in describing early child bilingualism. The main reason for the assumption of mutual exclusiveness is that most research has conceptualized separation and influence as involving whole language systems (or languages). Among the first to question this view were Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy (1996). The main observation is that some grammatical domains develop separately in early child bilingualism while the bilingual child uses language A to bootstrap aspects of the syntactic system of language B for others.

 What does ‘bootstrap’ in this context mean? Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy analyze the monolingual (containing only elements of the context language) and the mixed utterances of Hannah, a bilingual English-German child. On the basis of the respective monolingual utterances, they find that German is much more advanced than English with respect to lexical and syntactic aspects of temporal and modal auxiliary verbs. In order to ‘help herself out’ when speaking English, Hannah produces mixed utterances of the following type:

 (1) Kannst du move a bit                (Hannah, 2;4-2;9, Gawlitzek-Maiwald     
      Can you move a bit                                     &   Tracy 1996:915)

 In example (1), the left periphery comes from German, while the lexical verb and the adverb are in English. Until the English system of modal and temporal auxiliaries has been fully acquired by the child, she will fill in lexical material from German, a strategy which may also help the child to instantiate the English system: “Something that has been acquired in language A fulfils a booster function for language B.” (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy 1996: 903) The situation can be reversed for other grammatical phenomena

(Click to Read More and Stay Tuned for parts 2 and 3 with Nascha Müller)

“Something that has been acquired in language A fulfils a booster function for language B.” (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy 1996: 903) The situation can be reversed for other grammatical phenomena.  If, for example, some other grammatical property is more advanced in English than in German, the bilingual child will use the more developed grammatical property when speaking the language with the less developed one (cf. also Paradis & Genesee 1996 for the Inflectional Phrase IP, which is acquired earlier in French than in English and may therefore lead to code-mixing in the IP-domain). Authors like Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy (1996) and Bernardini & Schlyter (2004) (Swedish-Italian/French children) were mainly interested in mixed utterances. Hulk & Müller (2000), Müller & Hulk (2000, 2001) and Müller & Patuto (2009) have concentrated on non-mixed (monolingual) utterances of bilingual children. For some grammatical domains robust evidence exists from different language combinations that they develop separately (cf. the recent analysis of VO and OV in German-French bilingual children by J. Müller 2009). For other grammatical domains, however, influence of language B onto language A or vice versa has been attested. According to Genesee, Nicoladis & Paradis (1995), who argue against influence for their studied corpora (English-French children), three possible outcomes of cross-linguistic influence have to be distinguished: Transfer of grammatical knowledge, acceleration (speed of acquisition is accelerated in language A due to the influence of language B), and delay (speed of acquisition is reduced in language A due to the influence of language B)…”

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