General programme, activity sheet

Friday 8 September, 2017 18:40 to 20:10

Plenary Lecture

Acquiring three languages from birth: Does it matter?

Speaker: Natascha  Müller, Bergische Universität Wuppertal

Bilingual children who grow up with two languages from birth have been shown to separate their two grammars from early on (cf. Genesee 1989, Lleo 2002, Lleó & Kehoe 2002, Meisel 1989). Notwithstanding, the acquisition path is characterized by cross-linguistic influence. Cross-linguistic influence occurs in bilingual phonology (Lleó & Rakow 2006, Lleó 2016), morphology (Nicoladis 1999, 2003), and syntax (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy 1996, Döpke 1992, 1997, 1998, Hulk & Müller 2000, Müller & Hulk 2001). Paradis & Genesee (1996) outline two effects of cross-linguistic influence: delay and acceleration, both in comparison with monolinguals. Evidence for delay effects in linguistic development is widespread; the proof of acceleration effects still is the exception (cf. Kupisch 2006, Liceras et al. 2011). Linguistic proficieny, language dominance, the load created by the processing of two languages at a time, the interface nature of the linguistic phenomenon and computational complexity range among the factors which have been argued to determine the occurrence and direction of cross-linguistic influence.

Until today, early child trilingualism is understudied, probably because “for the time being, most of us are still working within the theoretical framework of bilingualism“ (Hoffman 1999:16). Montanari (2013:63) adds the time-consuming and expensive methods which must be used to document language development in trilingual children. A further reason relates to the underlying assumption that trilingualism is only an extension of bilingualism; thus, there is no need to adapt or alter language acquisition theory developed on the basis of bilinguals for the study of trilinguals (cf. Jeßner 1997, however, cf. the criticism in Hoffmann 2000). Indeed, similarities exist between early child bilingualism and the acquisition of three languages from birth. But early work like the one of Hoffmann (2001) also reports differences (cf. also Quay 2011a,b) which should invite acquisitionists to consider the necessity of a theory of trilingual first language acquisition in its own right. The differences between bilinguals and trilinguals are quantitative and qualitative in nature (Hoffmann 2001:1). For example, trilinguals are assumed, in contrast to bilinguals, never to be balanced; there will always be one language which is dominant and the other two are "weaker". The quality and language-internal properties play a role in how well each language is mastered by the trilingual child (Montanari 2013:63). Quay (2011a:3) concludes that “trilingual children need to be considered as speakers in their own right.“

When children acquire three languages from birth and the factors which favor cross-linguistic influence are present, the interesting question to study is which of the two languages B or C will influence the currently used language A. Will it be any of the other two languages since they are native languages? What role do linguistic proficieny, language dominance, the load created by the processing of three languages at a time, the interface nature of the linguistic phenomenon and computational complexity play? New results from cross-sectional (testing language production and language comprehension) and longitudinal studies indicate that it matters to be trilingual from birth. Both delay and acceleration play a role in early child trilingualism, but trilingual children do not always behave as their bilingual peers. Therefore, it is about time to elaborate a theory of early child trilingualism. The results gained on the basis of simultaneous trilingualism will add further dimensions to the study of third language acquisition taking place in a large number of different sociolinguistic situations where at least one language is acquired later in lifetime, at the age of formal schooling.

Plenary Session