Frequently Asked Questions
Research on Bilingualism
How do you define bilingualism in your research? Is it being able to understand and speak a second language or being able to also read and write (bi-literate)?
In our research, we commonly define bilingualism as a continuum rather than a category (for example, bilingual or not bilingual). As such we study bilingualism of all types from early language learners, like college students, on one end of the continuum to bilinguals who are highly proficient and literate in the two languages on the other end (and everything in between). Each point on this continuum provides us with valuable insight into how language acquisition proceeds and how the two languages interact in the mind.
Do you distinguish different levels of proficiency in your research?
Proficiency is a key variable in many studies of bilingualism. We often talk about the relative proficiency between two languages, that is, a comparison between the proficiency of one language to the other language for any given bilingual participant. We measure proficiency in a variety of ways, including objective measures of proficiency (for example, we may use a task to discover how fast or how accurate a participant at naming pictures in each language) and subjective measures of proficiency (using a questionnaire to discover how proficient the participant feels they perform in each language). We can also combine multiple such measures statistically to calculate a composite measure of proficiency.
Proficiency often determines outcomes of experiments. For example, proficiency impacts the extent to which the two languages interact in the mind and how the languages are controlled cognitively. Bilinguals who are at early stages of second language acquisition often experience interference from their more proficient language when using the relatively less proficient language. As such, they must cognitively suppress the unintended stronger language. In contrast, bilinguals who are highly proficient in two languages still experience interference from whichever language they are not using, but it tends to be reduced, likely because this type of bilingual has become an expert in overcoming interference.
Raising Bilingual Children and Child Second Language Learning
How often should young students be exposed to each in order to be bilingual?
The most important things in language development are exposure and need. If children are exposed to a language in a variety of circumstances with many different people, and if they feel they need the language to interact with the world around them, they will learn it. If they are exposed to two languages in varied circumstances with different people, and if they need both languages to communicate with the people around them, they will learn both. Learning will be relatively easier if children are exposed from the moment they are born, but will learn two languages if these criteria are met starting at a later age.
The hard part is making sure they have enough natural exposure to both languages. Most of the time, one of the two languages you want them to learn will be “more important” (i.e., in State College, English is the by far the predominant language), and the trick is to provide enough opportunities for them to use the “less important” one in a way that isn’t forced or artificial. The best way, if you can manage it, is to put children in situations where only the “less important” language is used so that there is no temptation to revert to the “more important” language.
How much exposure to a second language does one need to experience bilingual benefits to cognitive function or to prevent age-related decline.
The precise answer to this question is still being investigated. Initial studies on the benefit of bilingualism to cognitive function included participants who became bilingual as children, perhaps suggesting constant exposure to two languages is necessary from childhood. However, new research is emerging showing that even people who acquire a second language in adulthood (who have less exposure compared to early bilinguals) experience a bilingual advantage.