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Second language acquisition and bilingualism in children and adults

Dr. Sharon Unsworth, Associate professor in Linguistics

How do the two languages of bilingual children or adults interact with each other, and what effect does this have on their language production and processing? What does it mean to learn and process a second language? These are central questions in the field of bilingualism and second language acquisition addressed by CLS researchers. Their research focuses on second language acquisition in children as well as in adults, and aims to determine which factors influence second language learning and what it means to be bilingual. Dr. Sharon Unsworth, “By comparing learning processes of children who learn a second language at school with those of children who are raised bilingually at home, we can determine which environmental and individual factors contribute to developing language proficiency.”

Unsworth, SharonCritical period
One of the main successes achieved by CLS researchers in recent years concerns their research on a highly central and fundamental question in second language acquisition: to what extent does a language learner’s age at the beginning of the learning process influence the language acquisition process? “Our research has shown that this issue of a ‘so-called critical period’ is, in fact, too simplistic,” says Unsworth. “Age does play a role, but there are many more factors involved. For example, the quantity and the quality of the language input a child receives are important predictors of their proficiency. Our studies clearly demonstrate that we need a more nuanced approach to addressing questions about the critical period of language learning, as well as by looking beyond simple measures of grammatical knowledge and word knowledge.”

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Bilingual development
In the coming years, CLS researchers will be working on a major project about bilingual children. One of their goals is to determine the circumstances under which a bilingual child’s two languages influence one another. For example, one of the areas they will be examining is possessives, such as Claire’s cup. A monolingual English-speaking child may typically say Claire’s cup to describe a cup belonging to Claire, but a Dutch-English bilingual child might say the cup of Claire, analogous to the Dutch equivalent de mok van Claire. In the latter case, the structure from one language, Dutch, may influence the other, English. By studying under which conditions cross-linguistic influence occurs, CLS researchers aim to discover the differences and similarities between bilingual and monolingual language development.

Societal value
“By examining the language development of 500 children from a range of different language backgrounds, we will be able to unravel the way in which one language can affect the other. Ultimately, we want to understand the mechanisms by which this cross-linguistic influence takes place“. The project challenges the mainstream idea that the two languages are fully separated in the mind of a bilingual child. The results are of value to both the scientific field and to society, so that parents and teachers can better understand what they can expect from bilingual children. The researchers organize regular workshops for parents. Unsworth, “These parents often want to know what works best for their children. Being able to provide them with answers is a highly rewarding aspect of our work.”