Blog entry by Astrid Dinneen

Anyone in the world

Part-time PhD student Sarah Coles is currently researching UK-born children’s lived experiences of growing up in more than one language.  In this blog, she considers the place of the home language in the linguistic landscape of bilingual children from linguistic minority communities.   

My research focuses on the development of both first language (L1) and English (L2) of bilingual children growing up as members of linguistic minority communities in an L2 context.  It’s a longitudinal study that follows a small sample of bilingual children through their first year of schooling.  Using picture sequences, I elicit stories from each child, one in L1 and another in English, their L2.  This will be done once at the beginning of the fieldwork phase and again at the end.  In this way, I hope to be able to identify how the children’s two languages evolve over time and to document any shift in dominance from one language to another that may occur.  I will also work with each child to explore their lived experiences of growing up in two languages.  Additional contextual information, including the detail of their own language use, will be gathered from the children’s parents.  Ultimately, through the children’s own narratives, I hope to deepen practitioners’ understanding of bilingual children in the Foundation Stage and to pinpoint some practical ways in which support for such children might be tailored to improve their engagement with their learning.

Setting the scene: two broad-brush models of bilingual development

Across the globe, monolingualism is not the norm for all children; exposure to more than one language and bilingual development from an early age is in fact more prevalent than a monolingual model.  Children may experience different routes in their journeys to bilingualism dependent on their immediate family contexts.  Some children will be born into households where each parent speaks a different language and the child has access to both from birth.  This might be described as simultaneous bilingualism.  Other families may be part of a settled immigrant community and the child may experience a monolingual start, being exposed to a minority language at home and, later in their development, the majority language outside of it. This would describe sequential bilingualism.

The outcomes for children growing up in bilingual settings are varied.  Some will go on to develop comparable skills - receptive and productive – in their two (or more) languages and will be able to function in different contexts – school, home, community – equally well in both/all.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is just as possible for a child to have exposure to two (or more) languages yet to learn to speak only one themselves. 

The possible impact of differential linguistic prestige

There are various factors that may influence the course and outcome of a bilingual child’s language development.  One that seems to be significant relates to people’s perception of the relative prestige of the child’s two – or more - languages.  A child from a linguistic minority community may experience a monolingual start to life with exposure to the minority language in the home from their main care-givers from birth.  Later, and because it is the language of schooling, the child is required to develop a second, additional language, English.  For such a child, the second language is where the cultural capital resides, it being the language of the majority community.  Because of its sociocultural dominance over the minority language, it is often the case that this second language becomes the child’s preferred one, eventually replacing their first, minority language.  

This is a scenario experienced by many children of Hampshire’s UK-born ethnic and linguistic minority communities.  They may, in their early years, be exposed to – let’s say – Nepali at home but later, when they start school, English.  From that point onwards, families may notice their child gradually ceases to use Nepali, preferring to respond in English even when addressed in first language (L1).  This end result is sometimes referred to as ‘passive bilingualism’ although as De Houwer (2009) notes there is “nothing passive about understanding two languages and speaking one”.

The possible impact of quantity of input experienced 

A second consideration is the quantity of language input experienced by the child.  In a monolingual context, the language of the home is the same as the language of the wider community and – often – of education too.  Everywhere the child goes and everyone they meet speaks the same language.  Hence the child has multiple models of the same, single language.  In contrast, linguistic minority children born in the UK may have exposure to L1 at home and L2 (English) outside of it.  Hence their overall exposure to L1 is – in most cases - reduced. 

The impact of reduced exposure to each of the bilingual child’s two languages has been explored by researchers with an interest in child language development.  One thing that’s emerged is the observation that a child’s lexicon (the words they know and use) in each of their languages reflects the amount of exposure the child has to each language – which is typically less for each language than the total exposure to their one language experienced by a monolingual child of similar age.  When their vocabularies in both languages are combined, however, the overall picture of these bilingual children’s lexical development has been found to be on a par with their monolingual peers.

Further, research has identified that if the words known by a bilingual child are listed, only about one third represent words that are translations of each other; i.e. two thirds of the words a bilingual child knows in one of their languages are known only in that language and are not shared with the child’s other language.  This is likely to be directly related to differences in the contexts in which each language is used and the communicative purpose being served.

The possible impact of context 

Some researchers have found there to be discrepancies between UK-born bilingual children’s skills in L1 (the heritage language) compared with those of children of comparable age but growing up in a monolingual context.  They suggest that the L1 skills of bilingual children growing up in the UK are unlikely to reach a level comparable to monolingual children growing up in country of origin.  This, they say, is largely due to reduced exposure to the heritage language from adult L1 models who may themselves be experiencing language loss due to lack of use.  The overall outcome, some have suggested, is likely to be ‘incomplete L1 acquisition’. 

Elsewhere in the literature, the notion that ‘incomplete first language development’ exists at all attracts criticism.  Some have argued that all intergenerational first language transmission, including that which takes place in monolingual settings, evidences change.  According to this view, what others may see as ‘errors’ in L1 in fact represent “normal intergenerational language change accelerated by conditions of language contact” (Otheguy, 2016).  According to this view, in immigrant populations new L1 norms will naturally develop, resulting in divergence between L1 use in an L2 immersion context compared with L1 use in a monolingual, home country context.  Hence context has a bearing on the language models to which a bilingual child might be exposed. 

The possible impact of the language modelled 

Another important consideration when it comes to a child’s language development is the nature of the language models to which they are exposed.  Typically, linguistic minority parents themselves do not function in a monolingual context and this can have an impact on their everyday language practices.  The result is often an incremental increase in both code-switching (characterised by swapping from one language to another at word/phrase level) and code-mixing (combining grammatical structures from both languages) where in their speech they move in a fluid, natural way between languages, swapping a word or a phrase here and borrowing a grammatical structure there. 

In the literature, code-mixing and code-switching are identified as common linguistic practices amongst bilingual populations.  Having been found to be rule-based and systematic, code-switching and code-mixing are these days viewed in a favourable light as opposed to the deficit view that prevailed in the past that stigmatised them as “…the haphazard embodiments of “language confusion” (MacSwan, 2017). 

Although limited in terms of the number of empirical studies into the impact on bilingual children’s language development of code-switching and code-mixing by their parents, research suggests that bilingual adults frequently engage in these practices in interactions with their children.  This is in line with trends identified in the broader sweep of studies into bilingual code-switching and code-mixing.  What it means for a child growing up in more than one language is that they are likely to experience code-switching and code-mixing in language inputs modelled by family members and other significant adults around them.  This may in turn prompt them to code-switch and code-mix themselves in their own speech.  

Code-switching and code-mixing in parental inputs appear to influence L1 development in children growing up as members of language minority communities in other ways too.  Some studies have found a negative correlation, with higher rates of code-switching and code-mixing by parents resulting in lower comprehension and production vocabulary sizes in young children.  Others have identified that code-switched input, arguably more challenging to process than input in a single language, has positive outcomes but only for those children with greater verbal working memory capacity who are capable of processing it.

What this means for my research 

To draw to a close, the above whistle-stop tour illustrates that bilingual language development is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon.  It is affected by multiple influences, each impacting in different ways and to different degrees on the individual child in their own specific context.  Through my research, I make space for a small sample of UK-born bilingual children to explore these differences and to focus on their first-hand experiences of growing up in more than one language.  Once this has happened, any findings relevant to practitioners working with young, UK-born bilingual learners will be shared so that all bilingual children in Hampshire schools and settings receive a Year R experience that is sensitive to their developmental needs.   


De Houwer, A. (2009). Bilingual first language acquisition (1st ed., Vol. 2). Multilingual Matters.
MacSwan, J. (2017). A Multilingual Perspective on Translanguaging. American educational research journal, 54(1), 167-201.
Otheguy, R. (2016). The linguistic competence of second-generation bilinguals Romance linguistics    2013 : selected papers from the 43rd Linguistic Symposium on Romance Languages (LSRL),      New York, 17-19 April, 2013, New York.

[ Modified: Thursday, 14 October 2021, 11:07 AM ]