Impacts of bilingualism and second language on a child’s literacy acquisition

The outcomes of a second language on a child’s literacy acquisition have attracted a diverse spectrum of propositions. In the Languages in contact, Weinreich (1953) for instance noted that children being brought up in bilingual environments where the two languages overlapped in usage would be continually faced with interference between their two languages (as cited in, Ben-Zeev 1977). In early studies bilingualism was thus thought to be a contributor to mental confusion thus the poor performance of immigrants in intelligence tests (Hakuta, 1985).  As such the choice of instructional language was among the most controversial problems associated with bilingualism, with subjects in bilingual communities being wary of how the chosen language of instruction could affect their children’s knowledge acquisition and impact on latter attributes such as obtaining jobs (Mackey, 1969). Consequently, a broad spectrum of research on bilingualism impacts has evolved with some proposing bilingualism to have adverse effects on children in respect to performance and intelligence tests, while opposing studies have concluded bilingualism to be an asset whose deficiencies – noted in some studies – are only a result of poor experimental techniques and designs rather than disadvantages of bilingualism per se (Mackey, 1969). 

One such study evaluating the impact of bilingualism on intelligence and literacy acquisition was undertaken in the US and Israel with four groups of children – two monolingual groups matched to two bilingual groups (Ben-Zeev 1977). The bilingual groups consisted of Hebrew-English bilingual children in the US and Israel, while the monolingual groups consisted of children speaking only English in the United States and children who spoke only Hebrew in Israel (Ben-Zeev, 1977). The study results showed that despite lower vocabulary mastery than that of the monolinguals, the bilinguals exhibited superiority in such aspects as “discriminating perceptual distinctions…. propensity to search for structure in perceptual situations, and … capacity to reorganize their perceptions in response to feedback” (Ben-Zeev 1977, p. 1009).

A similar study conducted in India where one group used the school instruction language (Tamil) even at home, and the other where the instruction language (Tamil) was different from the home language (either Telugu or Kannada), gave a detailed perspective of impacts of bilingualism (Sampath, 2005). On verbal intelligence, the study found out that bilingual children’s verbal intelligence was retarded by lower levels of second language – the instructional language – proficiency (Sampath, 2005, p. 2052). Ability to solve arithmetic problems was also increased with increased proficiency in the instruction language while low level of such second language adversely affected bilinguals’ vocabulary (Sampath, 2005, p. 2054).

A more recent paper discusses results on various studies carried out in Wales aimed at assessing “the extent to which early bilingual speakers in stable bilingual communities become fully bilingual in their two community languages” (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 213).  The first study focused on the acquisition of Welsh and English in the country by using 611 children from the three regions of Wales – North (n=321), mid (n = 211) and South (n = 79) which differ in regard to the extent to which each language is spoken at home (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 216). Three home language groups were also developed according to which the participants were distributed – only welsh at home (OWH; n = 214), welsh and English at home (WEH; n=196) and only English at home [OEH; n = 201] (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 217). Similarly the ages of the children who participated were evenly distributed between the ages of seven and 11 (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 217). The results of the study indicated that participants from OWH overall performance was significantly different from other home language classification in the aspect of vocabulary (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 217)

The second study in the Wales group aimed to access the “acquisition of grammatical gender in Welsh” (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 221). Using children participants, the study found out that such acquisition differed significantly among home language groups – defined as in the previous study (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 221). The third study was aimed to evaluate the “Word order and the identification of sentential subjects” (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 222). Differences in this aspect also arose with regard to the home language groups and the language of instruction in schools (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009). For instance children from OEH who attended only Welsh schools (OWS) were more likely to identify the correct subject of a sentence than their counterparts who attended Welsh and English schools (WES) – (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009). Performance however was generally not affected in OWH and WEH despite the differences in instructional modes (OWS or WES) of at the schools they attended (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009).

From the review of these studies conducted in different cultures, childhood bilingualism may be deemed to have a significant impact on the course and efficiency of language acquisition and development. Such impact may however be limited to the degree of similarity or differences between the two languages. In the Wales studies the authors for instance note that “regardless of home language background, speakers develop equivalent, mature command of English, but that command of Welsh is directly correlated with the level of input in Welsh in the home and at school” (Gathercole & Thomas, 2009, p. 213). Such observations however also indicate that bilinguals at times could have the capacity to develop proficiency in both languages.

In the schooling environment the effects of bilingualism may thus have various implications. When it curtails the acquisition of proficiency in the instructional language, then bilinguals could be disadvantaged in learning activities such as reading and computational knowledge that are associated with proficiency in the instructional language. However with indications that bilinguals at times could attain an equal proficiency in the instruction language as monolinguals; teachers can develop instruction methodologies that would enhance bilingual participation in the classroom activities hence contribute to their learning experience. Go to part 3 here.

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