Psycholinguistics/Acquisition of More than One Language

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Lewis Hine, Boy studying, ca. 1924.jpg

When it comes to a person speaking more than one language in their life, there are different ways that learning this second language is affected. Some of the history in bilingualism and the effectiveness of how well the individual speaks, involves when they began to learn that particular language. [1]. If the person learns more than one language at once, the chances of them being capable of doing this without a state of confusion is in fact highly probable [2]. Findings suggest that children's early mixing of language does not necessarily reflect interlinguistic confusion [3]. An example of this would be a child being born into a family where both parents have different native languages and would like their child to be fluent in both. One tactic that has been shown to work is when one parent primarily speaks one language to the child and the other parents speaks the remaining language, even if each parent both fluent in both [4]. Alternatively, many people learn their second language at an older age, when they are already fluent in another language and start to learn a second. This is referred to as Second Language Acquisition (SLA) [4]. This page will go into much more detail about how SLA compares to learning a different language at a young age. Knowing more than one language can be seen as socially enhancing or on the other hand it can sometimes be restricting. However, due to the fact that language acquisition is a very complicated process there are certain things that predict how successful a person is going to be in their newest language and what is going to hold them back [5]. People must remember that learning something new; especially something like another language takes time, concentration and dedication.

What is the difference between Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition[edit | edit source]

The main difference between Bilingualism and Second Language Acquisition is that SLA is when a person has a language that they already speak fluently and they begin to learn an additional language. Whereas, childhood bilingualism involves the child learning two languages simultaneously. The success of mastering a second language is highly affected by the age at which the individual begins exposure to the new language [4]. Older individuals will be able to learn the language itself more quickly than younger children; however, the older individual will be less likely to develop an accurate accent than the younger child [6].

Language Differentiation[edit | edit source]

Being able to differentiate between more than one language without getting the two languages mixed up is when a person (child or adult) has reached language differentiation [7]. When looking at bilingualism, children who are learning two languages simultaneously are observed as oblivious to any differences between their two languages; this includes lexical and morphological elements [8]. Children learning more than one language can be affected by many different things that are around the child at the time of learning, such as which parent has the dominant language (how easily it is to be learned), and the rate at which the parents mix the different languages for the child [8]. When it comes to Second Language Acquisition, the learner already speaks one language fluently and has no problem differentiating between the one they already speak and the one they are beginning to learn. When learning a second language such as French, when the persons first language is English, conquering the grammatical parts of the language are much more difficult. The English language does not have the same types of feminine and masculine words the way that the French language does. Another issue could be spelling words. Consider the French/English example again, switching between these languages (called code switching - discussed below) may create spelling mistakes in words that are similar in both languages, such as “different” as ”differente”. This mistake reflects mental errors that occur when switching between two grammatical systems. Differentiating between more than one language is also related to code switching in which the person is capable moving back and forth between different languages.

Language systems and how speaking more than one language affects them[edit | edit source]

One of the skills that is slower to develp when learning a new language is the reaction time to process, access and voice the right combination of words.. Obviously, with much practice the person is more likely to have a very fast reaction time approaching that of a native speaker [9]. Many people ask if people who speak more than one language are better or worse off than people who only speak one, in the sense that they will have more oppurtunities in the future. In childhood, being taught more than one language could have a variety of effects on children that could involve the child getting confused between the two languages, or even struggling to keeping up with their peers in school [4]. However, once they have developed more than one language system and are able to use language differentiation to avoid getting mixed up, they are more likely to attain additive bilingualism. Being able to fluently speak and understand more than one language may also increase the chance for job opportunities for the individual.

Phonological Differentiation[edit | edit source]

Phonological differentiation is something that is most effective if the person has learned more than one language as a child. The fact that within different languages the accents cause words and phonemes to be pronounced differently causes people who do not speak the language to have a problem pronouncing certain sounds [6]. For example, people who speak Korean do not hear a difference in the letters and/or sounds “R” and “L”, therefore it would be hard for a person who speaks this as a first language to be capable to learn another language where differentiating these sounds is important (i.e. English). Children however, do not necessarily exhibit confusion between two different phonological systems when they are learning more than one language in childhood[6]. Many researchers wonder if the child is developing one language system or two, one meaning that they are incapable of differentiating between the different languages that they speak. When looking at the phonological differentiation between languages, researchers are looking to see if children exhibit confusion when trying to discriminate the phonological systems of two languages [10]. There is also the question of whether or not the system could have started out as one system but diverged into two, because in this case it would not be a restriction for the children.

Lexical Differentiation[edit | edit source]

Most children learning more than one language at once generally are learning one language from one parent and the other language from the other parent, although this may vary due to the family structure (i.e. grandmother, other family members, etc.) [4]. There are arguments that say children are unable to develop both separate and undifferentiated systems of language, in the sense that they will not be able to differentiate between the words and meanings between the languages that they are attempting to learn [7]. One way that researchers see if children are developing two systems is by asking them to find synonyms for words. An inability to perform such a task signifies that they are only developing one system .

Morphosyntactic Systems[edit | edit source]

This is the best way to determine whether a child is developing one or two systems for the languages that they are learning. Researchers will look at whether or not a child mixes up or gets confused with the grammatical aspects of the languages that they speak. A good example of this is when a person, usually new to the desired language, mixes up the order in which the words are supposed to appear. For a more in depth example: in the French language many of the adjectives come after the noun (“la maison rouge”) which would usually come before the noun in English (“the red house”). If the person that is speaking the two languages is unable to swtich the rules from one language than it is more than likely that the individual has only developed one system instead of two.

Issues in Bilingualism[edit | edit source]

Some of the main issues that people who are bilingual have, are the ones that involve social situations. As a child learning more than one language at a time this can be very difficult communicating with peers because many of their peers are not experiencing the same problem [11]. For those learning a new language when at an older age, the problem shifts to being able to master the accent and pronunciation of certain things in the new language [6]. There are some languages that include sounds that different languages would not even be able to notice. When a person is learning one of these new languages they need to be extra attentive to what is being said or how they are saying something.

Is there an Innate Component for learning a second Language?[edit | edit source]

Pictured above, Noam Chomsky was a celebrated linguist who suggested that humans are born with the innate ability to learn language.

One of the main questions relating to language is whether it is innate or learned due the fact that it is found everywhere. According to Noam Chomsky language potential was innate and innate to every humans mental capacity. He argued that there was no way a parent could be the sole factor in children developing language the way they do. Chomsky had the effect on scholars to the point where they began to define language as being universal and innate. Thus, the potential for language is innate, but whether or not it is practiced will determine the ability in using language (i.e. neglected children who are never taught the rules of language)

Psycholinguistics Competition Model[edit | edit source]

Also referred to as the competition model, this theory basically states that certain “cues” and rules from the previous language that speakers had learned will cross over to the new language that the person is attempting to learn [12]. When speakers begin learning a new language, they are more likely to use techniques that facilitated their native language during that learning process. Other learners will use code switching as a way to learn a new language, because during code switching they can add in words for the opposite language when they are uncertain if a word suits a certain context. This model includes a contrastive analysis which is used to predict potential errors that a speaker will make switching from one language to a new one, by examining the different rules that are involved in the different languages. This competition model helps deepen our understanding of learning a second language and facilitates the process of developing a second language due to being made aware of the speed bumps of language [12]

Socioculturists Approach[edit | edit source]

The socioculturist perspective focuses on whether or not learning a new language or being able to speak multiple languages will aid in making the person a more efficient and skilled individual in another culture. socioculturists look into how language performance is related to their personal identity and their identification in a different culture that speaks another language by examining factors such as ethnic pride, racism and prejudice in cultures.

Another aspect of the socioculturist perspective is that it helps language professionals with the issue between SLA and the cultural values. An example of this would be a family moving from another country into North America, and the child would desperately want to learn the new language so that they are not marked as a person who speaks a foreign language. A new language usually aids in cultural and personal experiences along with even helping the individual gain financial benefits. These factors generally cause the individual to become more motivated to learn the language to broaden their opportunities.

Bilingual Code-switching[edit | edit source]

Code-switching is something that is rather interesting in the study of how different languages effect a person and how the person functions in daily situations. Code-switching is recognized when an individual switches from speaking one language to randomly speaking in a completely different language.

Bilingual recycling.JPG

Additive Bilingualism[edit | edit source]

Additive Bilingualism is act of acquiring a second language in addition to the mother tongue.

Subtractive Bilingualism[edit | edit source]

Subtractive Bilingualism is the act of replacing the mother tongue with the second language. This has negative effects in the self-image of the learner.

Biological/Emotional Consequences of Bilingualism[edit | edit source]

Being able to speak more than one language is an accomplishment in itself, but to be able to become more skilled in a particular language the speaker must be able to initiate contact with the desired language. This involves whether the speaker is keeping contact with the target language out of desire, necessity or both. It is very important to maintain and preserve the culture by staying involved. When it comes to SLA it has been shown that it is innate for humans to seek out others to interact with, in order to use our language.

The physiological structures involved in the motivation to learn a second language include:

  • The amygdala which involves the emotional perception and the production of language
  • The frontal cortex which has to do with ones decision making and risk assessment
  • Along with the body proper

Different languages affect a variety of cognitive process, including emotional responses.. The person’s native tongue is the emotional outlet when emotional schemas come into play. An example of this would be when someone is angry they are most likely to release their frustration in their mother tongue.

Another interesting point about an individual’s dominant language is that people are most likely to talk in their sleep using their dominant language rather than their second learned language. So it matter how fluent a person becomes in subsequent languages, there still appears to be a subconscious preference of superior ability in their native tongue.

Emotional Schemas[edit | edit source]

Emotional schemas are “mental frameworks” that are created and remembered due to an emotional response and/or experience in a social setting in which we keep to predict what we are likely to feel in future situations.

How Multiple Languages Effect the Brain[edit | edit source]

When second language acquisition occurs in childhood, Broca's area is activated during use of both languages. When second language acquisition occurs in adulthood, Broca's area is only activated during use of the native language. Conversely, Wernicke's area is activated during second language use regardless of the age of acquisition.

Learning multiple languages will obviously have some sort of effect on the human brain; no matter what age the individual begins to study the language. Kim and colleagues [1] studied the native-language and foreign-language activation in accordance with when the language was learned. What they found was that a foreign language was spatially separated in the brain from ones native language when the foreign language was learned in adulthood. When the second language was learned in childhood it tends to be activated while overlapping within the Broca’s area, unlike Wernicke’s area where there was no separation of language that depended on age of acquisition.

Discussion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, learning more than one language is underrated in the sense that many people do not consider it a big deal. Children who are learning more than one language at once most likely find it hard at times, but in the long run they are most likely going to become more advanced and have more opportunities than those who are not bilingual. Especially in Canada, where there are provinces that have more than just English as a native language; Quebec and New Brunswick both have French as a major language. It is a complicated task to learn a second language but for those of you who have accomplished the knowledge it is very rewarding. Many researchers are still looking into the studies that involve the brain when learning a second language and others are looking into the effects it has on the people who have obtained a second language.

Lets test what you've learned![edit | edit source]

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Which form of language use has been shown to increase the odds of social success?

Additive Bilingualism.
Bilingual Codeswtiching.
Emotional Schema.
Lexical Differentiation.

2 When a bilingual person gets angry, they are more likely to revert back to the first language they learned.


3 The primary difference between bilingualism and second language acquisition (SLA) is:

Onset of learning.
Language individual is learning.

4 Noam Chomsky suggested that knowing more than one language is beneficial to a person's social and cultural adjustment.


5 Incorrectly applying the rules from one's native language during second language use is an error in which type of processing:

Lexical Differentiation.
Emotional Schemas.
Phonological Differentiation.
Morphosyntactic Systems.


Motivation to learn a second language is governed in part by the _____________.

7 Name one prominent factor that differs between children who are monolingual and children who are bilingual.

Bilingual children have funny accents.
Monolingual children have funny accents.
Bilingual children are likely to know certain words in one language but not the other.
Monolingual children will definitely try a second language later in life.


According to _________________________________, people who are new to a language are more to likely to draw on techniques that previously facilitated their native fluency.

Critical Thinking[edit | edit source]

These questions and activities are to take you into a deeper and stronger perspective on the acquisition of multiple languages and to really get you thinking...

1. Explain the differences between Phonological differentiation, Lexical Differentiation and Morphosyntactic Systems.

2. When researchers use the term of people developing more than one system, what are they referring to?

3. Explain the differences between Additive Bilingualism and Subtractive Bilingualism.

4. What is Bilingual Code-Switching?

5. What are Emotional Schemas? Create a unique example of something you would consider to be one.

6. Maria is a 7 year old female who's mothers first language is French and her fathers first language is English. Maria understands what she is trying to say, but often knows words in one language but not the other... What is she having trouble differentiating? Is she dealing with one or two systems?

7. From the previous question, if Maria had been 17 years old instead of 7, and was having trouble converting between the languages that she spoke... what kind of effect would this have on her social facilitation? Would it have a positive or a negative effect?

8. Explain how Broca's and Wernicke's area respond differently to language as a function of age of acquisition.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Kim, K., Relkin, N., Lee, K., & Hirsch, J. (1997). Distinct cortical areas asssosiated with native and second languages. Nature, 388, 171-174 -
  2. Jürgen, M.M., (1994). The Acquisition of Grammatical Constraints, Code-switching in Young Bilingual Children, Cambridge University Press, 16: 413-439 -
  3. Goodz, N.S., (2006). Parental Language Mixing in Bilingual Families, Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 25-44 -
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Mackey, W., (2000). The Description of Bilingualism, The Bilingualism Reader, Routledge, New York -
  5. Cenoz, J., (2003). The additive effect of bilingualism on third language acquisition, International Journal of Bilingualism. Vol. 7, No. 1, 71-87 -
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Flege, J.E., (1981). The Phonological Basis of Foreign Accent: A Hypothesis, Tesol Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 -
  7. 7.0 7.1 Bosch, L. & Sebastián-Gallés, N., (2001). Early Language Differentiation in Bilingual Infants, Trends in Bilingual Acquisition, 71-93 -
  8. 8.0 8.1 Genesee, F., Nicoladis, E., & Paradis, J. (1995). Language differentiation in early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, Vol. 22, No. 03, 611-631 -
  9. Friederici, A. D., (1995). The Time Course of Syntactic Activation During Language Processing: A Model Based on Neuropsychological and Neurophysiological Data. Brain and Language, Vol. 50, No. 03, 259-281 -
  10. Volterra, V. & Teaschner, T., (2008). The acquisition and development of language by bilingual children, Journal of Child Language, Vol. 5, No. 2, 311-326 -
  11. Saunders, G., (1998). Bilingual Children: Birth to Teens.Multilingual Matters Inc. Philidelphia -
  12. 12.0 12.1 MacWhinney, B., (1987).Applying the Competition Model to Bilingualism. Applied Psycholinguistics, 8:315-327 -