Anyone who uses both ASL and English systematically is bilingual. Interest in bilingualism is growing, but many people still worry that bilingualism can be harmful to young children. That’s why kids’ Korean books, French kids’ stories or Spanish bilingual books are becoming more and more popular. Who are bilinguals and how does bilingualism affect language and cognitive development? This overview provides concise and informed answers to questions you may have. And questions you may be asked when talking about the bilingual status of students using both ASL and English.
Definition of bilingualism
There are various definitions of bilingualism, differing from each other in the age of language acquisition. And the degree of proficiency in them. At present, when more and more attention is paid to bilingualism, most researchers agree on a functional definition. Simply put, bilinguals are those people who regularly use two languages; multilingual people are those who regularly use more than two languages.
However, misconceptions about bilingualism continue to exist. François Grosjean, a Swiss psychologist who pioneered the study of American Sign Language (ASL) cognitive processing, debunks several common myths about bilingualism in his 2010 book Bilingual: Life & Reality.
For example, many believe that monolingualism is the norm, and bilinguals are equally fluent in both of their languages. The scientific evidence does not agree with these commonly held beliefs. Moreover, Grosjean claims that just the opposite is true. In much of the world (though not yet in the US), bilingualism is the norm. And most bilinguals are bilingual to varying degrees. In addition, the degree of fluency in a language often changes over the course of a lifetime. Depending on how often a person uses each of the languages.
A Spanish-English bilingual who moved from Miami to Detroit may at first be more fluent in Spanish than English. But over time his English will become better than Spanish. According to various estimates, depending on the accepted definition of bilingualism. Bilinguals are from 50% to 75% of the total population of the world. According to the 2007 Census by the US Census Bureau, 18.1% of people over the age of 4 living in the US do not speak English at home. But have some level of English proficiency.
This census did not take into account all forms of bilingualism in the US (including not counting ASL-English bilingualism), but it does give a good estimate of the minimum number of bilinguals in the US. According to this census, at least 50 million people in the United States are bilingual (and likely more). Although there are no population-based studies linking bilingualism to hearing status. It is highly likely that bilingualism is even more common among deaf people than among hearing people; many deaf people know both sign language and spoken language (oral or written).
Most bilinguals use different languages for different purposes.
For example, they may use one language at home and another at school, speak one and write in another. Speak one with siblings and another with grandparents, etc. Fluency in each language will be determined how and when it was mastered, as well as the level required by the context in which this language is used. For example, bilingual children may only know the word “slippers” in one language because the word is used more often at home than at school; but they will most likely know the word “bring” in both languages.
At one time, the results of many studies indicated that bilinguals lag behind their monolingual peers, but these studies suffered from one common drawback – they measured the level of proficiency in only one of the two bilingual languages. A bilingual child who does not use the school language at home may not know words like “slippers” and therefore have a lower measured level of language proficiency than a monolingual child. Newer works assess the level of proficiency in both languages. A comparison of monolingual and bilingual children, taking into account both languages of bilinguals, showed no significant difference between these groups in the rate of vocabulary increase.
Stages of language development in bilingual children
While realistic beliefs about bilingualism are now becoming more widespread, many parents still worry that a bilingual environment at an early age can be confusing and lead to language and cognitive retardation. However, studies of bilingual children systematically show that learning multiple languages is a smooth process that occurs naturally and without complications. In the field of phonological, lexical and grammatical development, bilingual children go through successive stages at the same age as monolingual children. Recent studies of hearing children of deaf parents have shown that children who learn sign and spoken languages in parallel also go through these stages at the same time.
Moreover, these studies have shown that when hearing children combine gestural signs and spoken words in one utterance, this is not the result of a confusion of languages, but a systematic and predictable behavior similar to the “code switching” used by bilingual adults. Already at a very early age, the way hearing children combine words and signs is such that it takes into account the grammatical structure of both languages and reflects the type of “code switching” that their parents use. The use of “code-switching” by teachers in bilingual ASL-English classrooms can also contribute to the language development of their deaf bilingual students.