Bowers, J. S., Mattys, S. L., & Gage, S. H. (2009). Preserved Implicit Knowledge of a Forgotten Childhood Language. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1064–1069.
Parents who want their children to become highly proficient bilinguals might, unfortunately, view their children’s potential lack of what they consider to be perfect proficiency in one of the languages as a failure on their own account. For example, I’ve had conversations with parents who worry that they didn’t expose their children to enough of one of the languages, or weren’t strict enough in their expectations of which language should be spoken back to them by their children. Alternatively, the possibility alone that both their children’s languages might not become as proficient as fellow monolingual children’s languages might serve as reason to decide against supporting a bilingual upbringing.
To a large extent, this line of thought is grounded in the comparison of bilinguals with monolinguals (i.e. Is my bilingual child performing in both of his or her languages as two separate monolingual children would in those same languages?). Instead, there are many reasons as to why – instead of comparing bilinguals with monolinguals – bilingual children should be compared with bilingual children. As such, children raised with two (or more) languages are not thought to be inadequate when compared to monolinguals indeed because the bilingual child does have an additional language (taken to an extreme, such a line of thought would actually consider monolingualism to be a form of “inadequacy” – if using this word at all – due to the complete lack of an additional language). This idea (that bilinguals serve as their own yardstick) is sometimes referred to as the “bilingual mindset”. So – it doesn’t really matter how proficient the bilingual child is in language A and language B because the bilingual child indeed has language A and language B, which, aside from the additional language, itself comes with many advantages (see previous blogs on e.g. dementia, bilingualism in Canada, and bilingualism in aboriginal communities).
But what if a child acquires only very little of a language in the early years (or potentially only hears this language), and thereafter contact with this early language is severed? This might be the case, for example, of children who are adopted by parents who speak a language other than the country where they were born; and of children who have caretakers who speak a language they do not speak, but, after a certain young age, the caretaker and family go their separate ways. Such early exposure might also occur in the case of divorce, if, for example, one parent spoke a particular language with the child early on, but then contact with that parent unfortunately stopped after separation. In my own case, I was exposed to Dutch through my Oma (grandmother) and Opa (grandfather) until the age of 4, because we lived very close to them, but when we moved to another town in Canada, far away from them, my exposure to Dutch dropped dramatically. Comparable situations to my own might occur in aboriginal communities where the grandparents speak with the grandchildren in the aboriginal language, but when the grandparents pass away, the grandchildren no longer receive input in that language because – for various reasons – the parents don’t speak with the children in the aboriginal language to the same extent that the grandparents did. Here, in terms of bilingualism, the question is whether this early exposure has lasting benefits in terms of acquiring that language later on. Or, put differently, do individuals who were exposed to a language in their early years have an advantage over those who were not exposed to this same language – when both groups attempt to acquire that language later on in adulthood?
Bowers, Mattys, and Gage (2009) investigated this very question. They examined whether native English speakers living in the United Kingdom, “who were exposed to either Hindi or Zulu as children due to their parents’ work abroad” (p. 1064) could learn to hear differences between sound contrasts which were unique to those languages faster than fellow native English speakers living in the United Kingdom who had never been exposed to those languages in early childhood. Crucially, they also wanted to know whether those who had been exposed to Hindi could acquire the sound contrasts of Hindi faster than those who had been exposed to Zulu, and vice versa. As such, they wanted to find out whether exposure to a particular language in early childhood aids (re?-) learning of that specific language in adulthood, rather than exposure to a particular language in early childhood aiding in the learning of any language in adulthood.
In their study, they tested all of the participants (the completely monolingual Brits, who had never been exposed to any language other than English; the Brits who were exposed to Hindi early on; and the Brits who were exposed to Zulu early on) to see whether they could hear sound contrasts of those languages. In this initial test, all of the participants scored equally poorly, i.e. they could all not hear the “foreign” sound contrasts. Thereafter, all the participants underwent sound contrast training, i.e. they were asked to determine whether the two sounds they heard were the same or different and they “were given feedback after each response (correct vs. incorrect)” (p.1066) over a series of training sessions which lasted approximately 30 days. Again, the idea was to determine whether or not the training which they underwent would help e.g. those who were exposed to Hindi early on to acquire the Hindi sound contrasts faster than the complete monolinguals and faster than those who were exposed to Zulu early on.
Their results showed that although the early exposure individuals “showed no preserved knowledge of their childhood language on initial testing, after practice, a subset of them (participants under the age of 40) regained sensitivity to a [sound] contrast from their childhood language. By contrast, when [this contrast] was unknown in childhood, no or minimal learning was observed after extensive practice for both young and old participants” (p. 1066). They summarized that their ﬁndings “provide clear evidence of preserved implicit knowledge of a forgotten childhood language” (p. 1066); but, it appears, only if that language is re-acquired before the age of 40. After the age of 40, they suggest that disuse for such an extended period of time may indeed cause complete forgetting.
Accordingly, it seems that, even if children who are raised in an environment with more than one language do not acquire both languages completely and fully (in comparison to how monolingual children would have acquired those languages), their perhaps even very minimal acquisition (through e.g. simply early exposure to that language) puts them at an advantage in acquiring that same language later on in life, if they are so inclined to do so.
In other words, parents who decide to create an environment with more than one language for their child, might consider this itself to be a success, regardless of how “perfectly” the child learns the language. This is akin to viewing the glass half full, rather than half empty.
Even a little bit of water in the glass is something which has lasting benefits.
Esther de Leeuw