Italian-English Bilingual Child

© Ellen Smith

Undergraduate Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation investigates bilingualism and analyses the speech of a bilingual child. Bilingual speakers have the ability to use two or more languages, however, finding an absolute definition of bilingualism is an impossible task since linguists have different expectations with regard to the level of proficiency required to be categorised as bilingual. Even "proficiency" itself is an ambiguous term since one can have proficiency in different areas of language and language skills. Indeed a bilingual speaker may exhibit unevenness amongst these areas within a given language, and they may also exhibit dominance of one language over another. Bilingual speakers also differ in the circumstances under which they become bilingual.

The subject of this case study is a five-year-old Italian-English bilingual girl who acquired her languages simultaneously from birth. She lived in an Italian-speaking community and her Australian mother spoke English to her exclusively, whilst her Italian father spoke Italian, using English only when her mother or other native English speakers were present. The data which forms the foundation of this case study is audio recordings and written records of the subject's speech which were collected over a period of two months in informal settings.

This dissertation identifies instances of language mixing, construction replication and extension in the subject's speech and seeks to establish the motivations for such productions. There is much debate surrounding the definition of language mixing and whether the phenomenon should encompass code-switching and borrowing. I argue that it should not since the motivations and uses of each phenomenon differ, as the data demonstrates. The data also shows that language mixing is not evidence for the theory that bilingual children have a unitary language system. Instead language mixing is used as a communicative strategy. It is also debatable whether construction replication is language mixing or a type of interference (a deviation from the target language due to the influence of the "deactivated" language) and the data provides examples in support of both views. Although the data analysis shows that the subject's speech is affected by her having acquired two languages simultaneously, her speech also demonstrates acquisition processes found in monolingual children, such as extension, which are not the result of language contact.

The findings show that the subject overrides the constraints of the base language when she is motivated by a communicative necessity. In some cases these deviations draw purely on the linguistic material available in English, as in the cases of extension, but the majority of productions show that the subject draws upon her other language, Italian, and allows it to have an effect upon her English, in the form of language mixing and construction replication, in order to achieve her communicative goals.

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