Some thoughts on bilingualism, language acquisition and language learning

I have never studied bilingualism and I’m not bilingual so my thinking on the subject comes from what I have picked up from a few books, articles, comments and memes, connected by some personal observations and marinated in plenty of prejudice and bias.

Before learning another language I used to think (and I believe this to be a widely-held assumption) that bilinguals would be natural interpreters because they had fluency in two (or more) languages. I have since discovered that interpreting is an entirely different skill to speaking a language fluently.

While learning other languages I came up with an illustration that I used to explain to myself and others what I imagine happens in my head.

It is more or less like a library. As new words from Language 2 get learned by the brain, they get filed away in the Language 2 section. Early on in language learning if I need to find a word from Language 2, I go to the desk and present the equivalent word in Language 1 and then the librarian (my brain) finds the word I’m looking for in Language 2 and brings it back to the desk.

This obviously takes some time if I have to keep presenting my L1 word in order to retrieve my L2 word from storage. As I increase in fluency in Language 2, I eventually gain free access to the L2 section of my brain. This speeds things up considerably and means that I am no longer translating ad hoc.

It also means that eventually, depending on how my brain was presented with the word in the first place, there may not be an L1 entry for the word I use in L2.

If I am functioning directly in L2, I may not know the equivalent word in L1 at all (it could be a technical term for example), or there may not be an equivalent L1 word and when speaking L1 to other L1 speakers familiar with L2 it is natural to borrow the L2 word rather than settle for a less accurate term.

The reason that I share this illustration is because I assume that language learning and language acquisition is very different because the language acquisition is largely unconscious since it happens at such a young age. Please feel free to correct me if you happen to know that I am wrong about this.

So, accordingly my assumption about bilinguals was that the sections for language in their mental libraries (let’s call them Language X and Language Y) are separate and function separately. Bilinguals have never had to go to the front desk and ask the librarian for the word they are looking for as they have always had free access to both language sections since they were being created.

I would think that second language learners have a word as their link point between L1 and L2, whereas bilinguals have the actual thing the words describe as the link point between LX and LY.

This is my (unproven and totally unresearched) theory and in my mind this also explains why in my experience bilinguals do not automatically make better interpreters.

It is natural, particularly early on in language learning, to structure a sentence in L2 in the same way you would structure it in L1. If you are exposed to L2 for any length of time, sometimes you end up structuring speech in L1 in the same way you would structure it in L2, which tends to be a bit disconcerting for other L1 speakers.

I had assumed that bilinguals would not do this because the grammatical rules governing their language use would not be dependent on one another and, to my mind, there shouldn’t be any conscious connection between them.

What I am beginning to discover now that I am able to observe an early years bilingual at close quarters on an almost constant basis is disproving my own theory.

There are moments when I am absolutely certain that some sort of translation is taking place in her mind. She is asking the mental librarian for the word in Language Y and, rather than search in the ‘language previously heard spoken’ section of LY, the librarian searches in Language X for the word specified, finds a translation of one of the meanings of the word in Language Y and presents it to her for use.

At this stage the mental librarian is not always very reliable and sometimes picks the wrong meaning.

I will give some examples in another post as this was just a quick aside before I got carried away.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What are your experiences as a bilingual, or a second language speaker raising bilingual children? Would you agree or disagree with my language library illustration?

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