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Bimodal bilingualism

30 Apr

Emmorey, K., Borinstein, H. B., Thompson, R., & Gollan, T. H. (2008). Bimodal Bilingualism. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 11(01), 43–61.

Often, when we think of bilinguals, we think of people who speak two or more languages. In fact, we might even claim that to be bilingual, one must speak at least two languages fluently.

Emmorey, Borinstein, Thompson and Gollan looked at a different type of bilingual, who they call “bimodal”. Bimodal bilinguals are “exceptional because distinct modalities allow for simultaneous production of two languages” (p.43). In practical terms, bimodal bilinguals are born to parents who are hearing impaired, or deaf. The parents’ hearing children learn to sign in order to communicate with their parents, while acquiring the spoken language of their environment, like other hearing children. What makes these children special is that they can produce both of their languages at the same time because it is physically possible to simultaneouslysign with your hands and produce spoken utterances with your mouth.  In contrast, unimodal bilinguals (e.g. someone who is fluent in both English and Spanish) cannot physically articulate two words or phrases simultaneously (e.g. it is impossible to say dog whilst saying perro).

Emmorey et al. investigated American English (AE) – American Sign Language (ASL) bimodal bilinguals to see whether they did indeed say AE words and produce ASL signs at the same time (they call the occurrence of such simultaneous words and signs “code-blending”). After all, just because it is physically possible to code-blend, doesn’t mean that bimodal bilinguals will actually do so.

Their study is interesting to research in bilingualism for many reasons. In particular, if the bimodal bilinguals code-blend frequently, Emmorey et al.’s claim is that this shows that selecting both languages (called “lexical selection”) is less costly than inhibiting one of the languages (called “lexical inhibition”). Lexical inhibition would entail the production of only one “term”, e.g. either saying the word dog, or signing its equivalent sign. Lexical selection would entail the production of both of the “terms” at the same time. The assumption is that the bimodal bilinguals will do what is less costly, or easier on the brain. If selection is less costly, the bimodal bilinguals will code-blend a lot; however, if inhibition is less costly, they won’t code-blend very much at all.

To conduct their study, eleven AE – ASL bimodal bilinguals were filmed. These participants were asked to converse with one another about chosen topics and the researchers coded the short films to see how frequent code-blending was in relation to their total conversation.

Their findings showed that code-blending was indeed frequent amongst the bimodal bilinguals: of the 910 utterances, 325 (35.7%) contained a code-blend and some of their data showed blending 98.0% of the time (p. 48). Interestingly, most of the code-blends were verbs, rather than nouns or adjectives. According to Emmorey et al., this high amount of code-blending indicates that dual selection of languages is less costly than the inhibition of one of the languages. Moreover, they tentatively suggest that the only reason why hearing unimodal bilinguals do not produce both of their languages simultaneously is because it is physically impossible to produce two spoken languages at the same time. Alternatively, if it were physically possible to say dog and perro at the same time, the Spanish-English bilingual in the above example would indeed do so.

Without a doubt, their study raises many questions regarding how bilinguals control the production of their languages. More basically, Emmorey et al.’s research exemplifies the many forms bilingualism can take.

Esther de Leeuw