Why Bilinguals

Viewed globally, far more individuals understand and use two, if not more, languages in their daily life than those who understand and use only a single language. However, psycholinguistic theorizing has, until recently, held monolingualism as the canonical form of language use to be problematized.

A repercussion of this monolingual-as-norm assumption has been that research on bilingualism has either been neglected or marginalized. To the extent

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that bilinguals are viewed as being qualitatively different from monolinguals, they are not seen as being relevant to models addressing the monolingual-as-norm. When included in mainstream research, bilinguals are cast as differing only quantitatively from monolinguals, and they are regarded as valuable for cross-linguistic comparisons (addressing how a particular variable is manifest in one language vs another). There is little room in this view for asking how language processing may be affected by exposure to and coordination of two linguistic systems. Indeed, phenomena that would appear to mark bilinguals as distinct from monolinguals, such as their ability to move from one language to another, have been argued to have counterparts in monolingual usage, such as when a speaker shifts from a formal to an informal speech register. The suggestion that bilinguals are basically the sum of two monolinguals and that there is thus no reason to view them as being qualitatively different from monolinguals may have contributed to the underinclusion of bilingualism in psycholinguistic research.

The view that bilinguals are nothing but the sum of two monolinguals has not gone unchallenged, however. One challenge has taken the form of disputing the monolingual-as-norm assumption on numerical grounds, in view of the fact that bilingualism is globally a more prevalent mode of language experience. As a consequence, to be representative, research and theory would need to address the bilingual situation directly; monolinguals, in this view, would be considered a deviant variety of language use. Adoption of this view would shift what is considered to be interesting in monolingual language use to those phenomena that have clear counterparts in bilingual language use.

Another challenge to the monolingual-as-norm position has been one that privileges neither bilinguals nor monolinguals. Rather, it holds that a truly comprehensive understanding oflanguage functioning depends on enlarging the scope of language experience typically studied to include the full spectrum of language acquisition contexts and language use, rather than the arbitrary designation of only one form of use as appropriate or sufficient for study. Such a view encourages inquiry into the influence of such parameters as the structural properties of the language or linguistic subsystem; when the language was acquired (at birth, before the onset of puberty, or later); what level and type of proficiency was achieved in the language; and how the language was learned and used (formally or informally, primarily in a written mode or in naturalistic discourse, etc.); on how language is perceived, processed, or represented. With the exception of language structural variables, most of these parameters have simply not been examined when only monolinguals have been the subject of study, given that monolinguals tend to be relatively uniform regarding when, how well, and in what circumstances they acquire their language. Bilinguals, however, are quite heterogeneous on these dimensions and thus more readily lend themselves for such study. Insights derived by considering bilingual subgroups varying on these dimensions can thus enrich models of language processing and representation.

Considering the full spectrum of language experience may thus be a more judicious approach to the study of language functioning because it encourages a broader range of questions for study. One fundamental question that has been the subject of much debate and research concerns the cognitive repercussions of exposure to two languages. Vygotsky maintained that the ability to express the same thought in different languages enables a child to view his or her language as one particular system among many and to view its phenomena under more general categories; this leads to awareness of the child's linguistic operations. In his pioneering empirical studies of bilingual memory, Wallace E. Lambert similarly concluded that early exposure to two languages enhances metalinguistic awareness and promotes cognitive flexibility. Lambert further suggested that simultaneous versus consecutive exposure to two languages may have differential consequences, with early, simultaneous exposure having more pronounced cognitive enhancement effects. A vast body of psychological research addressing cognitive concomitants of bilingualism in turn led to questions about neural correlates of variations in language experience.

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