How does the social context affect the rate of language development? Suppose we have two children. Child A is an American child in a Spanish-speaking environment. He lives with his parents, both of whom are of American roots trying to adjust and cope with a language unfamiliar to them. None of them have sufficient knowledge in Spanish to be able to converse effectively with their neighbors. Child B, on the other hand, is an American child living in an English-speaking environment. He, like Child A, also lives with his parents, who are also both English-speaking and of American descent.
Let us compare their situations, and figure out who will most likely be the first to acquire bilingualism. Child A Child B Within the household English English Outside the householdSpanish English How do we define the term ‘bilingualism’? Do we define bilingualism as the “native like control of two or more languages” (Bloomfield, 1933), or “the ability to use more than one language” (Mackey, 1962)? Or is it “the point where a speaker can first produce complete meaningful utterances in the other language” (Haugen, 1953)?
Indeed, a lot of definitions have been presented in the aim to finally give a concrete meaning to bilingualism. However, we will not dwell on definitions in this discussion, so it would probably be best if we would stick with the simplest definition of bilingualism for now, that bilingualism is being able to communicate effectively in the languages involved, this meaning that the speaker is able to use the languages involved effectively in everyday life. Social context refers to the environment that a person was educated or lives in.
This includes the culture, mode of interaction, and all outside factors within the environment. Let us go back to the problem presented above, that of Child A and Child B. Child A is exposed to two languages on the average: English and Spanish. His exposure to English comes from his parents, and his exposure to the other language, Spanish, comes from the outside environment—the social context. Child B, on the other hand, is exposed to only one language: English. Inside the household and from the social context, the only language he gets exposure from is English. Now, who will most likely be a bilingual?
It is clear from the information above that Child A will most likely be the bilingual between the two children. How did this conclusion come to be? In a study of language acquisition in children, linguist and researcher Werner Leopold documented the language acquisition process of his daughter Hildegard (Hakuta, 1986; Leopold, 1949). Hildegard, being the daughter of a German father, and an American mother of German descent, she was exposed to two languages all at once, with Leopold speaking only German at home and his wife Marguerite speaking only English. Hildegard, from the very beginning, had a strong hold on her bilingualism.
As time passed she learned how to use both of the languages very well, to the point that at a very young age she could identify each language separately and use them accordingly to her audience. However, when Hildegard was five years and six months old, she showed an abrupt shift of her dominant language. During this time she and her family had just returned to the United States from a one-year visit to Germany, and when they returned, her language was almost completely German. The days that followed their return to the United States, her linguistic abilities in English faltered.
She was more of a passive bilingual in English; she understood the language but was unable to express herself. However, a week after their return, Leopold had observed that Hildegard had gone back to her active bilingualism. She was able to chat continually in English as though her period of passive bilingualism had never existed. Nevertheless, although she had regained control of the English language, there were still times when German words would creep in unconsciously while she chatted in English, and sometimes she would halt when she would have to think of the English translation of a German word.
At seven years and a month old, Hildegard continues to speak German to her father, but because of the demands of living in an English-speaking environment, the dominance of English began to become apparent once again. Sometimes when Hildegard would speak in German with Leopold, he would notice that somewhere in the middle of their conversation, she would halt, and switch instead to English. This continued on until Hildegard was fourteen, and due to lack of exposure to the German language, her linguistic ability in German began to wane.
From Hildegard’s case we could clearly see the effect of the social context on the development of both her languages. The shifts from English to German and vice versa because of the change of environment made the message of social context clear: that it does indeed affect the rate of language development. When Child A is exposed to a language more often than Child B, it can easily be guaranteed that Child A will learn the language in less time than it will take Child B. The same is true for adults.
For example, American citizens to come to the Philippines and stay for about a year or so will find it difficult not to acquire Filipino words and their correct usage. Perhaps those who are able to quickly grasp the linguistic system of the Filipino language may even learn the language in a year and learn to speak like a native does. It’s hard not to learn the language when you have been exposed to it for some time. Here is another account, this time of a five-year-old Japanese girl by researcher Kenji Hakuta, which again shows the effect of social context on the rate of language development:
In the early 1970’s when I was an undergraduate, I met a visiting scholar from Japan. Mr. Tanaka (not his real name) invited me home to dinner one time to meet his family. The Tanakas had just moved into the first floor of a typical multifamily unit in a working-class, English-speaking neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts. Mr. Tanaka’s spoken English was what might be described as “halting” (he was more comfortable with written English); his wife had studied English in college and was quite fluent.
The family member who most interested me, however, was their five-year-old daughter. We will call her Uguisu (“nightingale” in Japanese). When I first met Uguisu, she had just been enrolled in a neighborhood public kindergarten and had begun to make friends with children on her street. Since she was receiving no formal instruction in English at school, Uguisu made for a nice comparison with children who acquire English as their native language. The first evening, I tried unsuccessfully to get Uguisu to speak English.
Apparently, her one English phrase was not in particular, which she had picked up from her mother. The next few months were difficult ones for Uguisu. Her parents reported that she complained of headaches and was generally cranky, which they attributed to the pains of being in a new environment and coping with an unfamiliar language. She played well, sharing toys with her friends, and she occasionally used a few English phrases—usually imitations of what her friends had just said.
For example, she learned to say I’m the leader, which her friends used to yell out as they stormed around the house, and she used it frequently in a variety of contexts, such as when she wanted to show her friends how to play with toys. When asked in Japanese what she thought that meant, she translated it as “I am the big sister,” that is, a show of authority. It was not until almost seven months after her initial exposure to English that Uguisu’s English really blossomed. Her parents felt that this flowering was triggered by a lengthy automobile trip that the family had taken.
On the trip, they were accompanied by an American adult, with whom Uguisu got along well, and this may have given her the needed confidence to use the “data” that she had stored up over the months. From that point on, her rate of development was awesome; a nightingale had been turned loose. During the next six months, English became her predominant language. She even started talking to her parents in English, which they did not actively discourage, although they usually responded in Japanese.
And she used it when playing on her own, such as in the bathtub with her toys. I suspect that within eighteen months after her initial exposure to English, only a trained ear would have been able to distinguish her from a native speaker (see Hakuta [1974, 1976] for full reports on her development). At the end of two years, the family returned home to Japan. (Hakuta, 1986; p. 106-108) Similar to Hildegard, Uguisu also displayed signs of better acquisition of the language due to social context.
Take note of the part where her parents claimed that a long trip with an American adult triggered Uguisu’s increased pace of acquisition of the English language. Also, note how Japanese was her native language (dominant), and because of their migration to an English-speaking neighborhood in Massachusetts, Uguisu was further exposed to the language. Add the fact that her first English phrase was not in particular which she had picked up from her mother, which most likely means that her parents, or her mother for that matter, spoke English at home.
Being exposed to English within and outside the household, it was no wonder Uguisu learned the linguistic system of the English language in a very short time. So what does this all tell us? That yes, social context does affect the rate of language development. That yes, social context plays a big role in language acquisition. And that yes, if you want to learn a new language quickly and efficiently, the best way is to get as much exposure to the language as possible. — Ed. Doughty, Catherine & Long, Michael. The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. 2005
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