Bilingual Code Mixing is not a sign of confusion


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A distinctive behaviour of bilingual speakers is Bilingual Code Mixing (BCM), which usually takes place when two languages are mixed in the same or in two different utterances in the same conversation. The amount of code-mixing varies in bilingual children, with some who code-mix frequently, some others a little and some children code-mix at different rates with different family members. Virtually all bilingual children code-mix even if their parents adhere to the “one-parent, one-language” principle; that is when each parent communicate to their child in one language only. Empirical research extensively supports BCM, which appears to be a normal phenomenon in dual language development. Furthermore, code-mixing does not occur only in bilingual children as it is common among adult bilinguals and highly proficient language learners. In this field, a vast body of research demonstrates that such individuals are able to create a flawless conversation when mixing both languages. Therefore, given the above conditions, code-mixing is believed to be a sign of proficiency in adults. Nevertheless, among children BCM has been thought to be, by parents and some professionals alike, a signal of confusion and cause of concern. In order to debunk this bilingual myth, it will be helpful, once again, to look into the Unitary Language System Hypothesis, according to which bilingual children are not able to differentiate their evolving languages at early development stages. Parents and professionals who believe in the validity of such a hypothesis, interpret code-mixing as a symptom of confusion, and in some instances as a sign of incompetence. As previously mentioned, such a hypothesis has been discredited by research that has exposed numerous shortcomings in the design methodology applied to these early studies. In fact, early research focused exclusively on how often bilingual children code-mixed and overlooked how frequently they could use their language in a sensitive context manner. A study conducted by Genesee et al, 1995  examined bilingual children between the ages of 22 and 26 months during naturalistic interactions. All the children were English-French bilinguals from Montreal, raised by their parents following the cited one-parent, one-language rule. The children were observed in three different contexts; alone with their mothers, alone with their fathers and in presence of both parents. In the latter context, the children were able to separate the two languages according to which parent they were interacting with. In this way, even at early ages, children were able to adjust their languages according to different contexts. These findings are incompatible with the Unitary Language System Hypothesis which would have expected the children to use random language despite diverse contexts. Furthermore, such results do not support the confusion hypothesis according to which children are not capable of becoming bilingual without experiencing language confusion. An integrative review of the subject is provided by Guiberson (2013), who did not find any evidence in the literature analysed to support such an assumption. Moreover, a recent study conducted by Greene et al., 2013, sustains the Lexical Gap Hypothesis (Paradis et al, 2011), according to which bilingual children code-mix not because they experience confusion or are not able to differentiate between their languages, but rather because they are filling the gaps in their lexical or syntactic knowledge in order to satisfy their communication needs. The scholars analysed code-mixed responses of 606 five-year old English and Spanish speaking children, and compared their prevalence, frequency and accuracy on expressive semantic items. The children were divided by language dominance established, based on the amount of language exposure and usage. In addition, they were allocated to a no-risk or at risk of language impairment group according to individual performance achieved in an English-Spanish screening battery. The results showed that the children used code-mixing to fill lexical gaps, which is consistent with other studies on children and adults. This study demonstrated once again that lexical choice and language preference requires linguistic competence in more than one language. To close, in most cases BCM should not be regarded as evidence of language delay or impairment; parents and educators should not admonish children for using it. Further, it is recommendable for language development specialists and educators to desist from advising parents to restrict their communication exclusively to one language on the postulation that this will correct any language learning problems.

For more information please contact raffaella@languagesalive.com

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