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Bilingual brain: one or two systems?


 From Miro, different materials, 5 years

An important issue affecting researchers and parents about bilingualism is the degree of possible interference between languages ​​(Naomi Singerman Goodz, 1989).

The factors influencing this phenomenon are different, from the age of language learning, the degree of exposure and use, the language combination, to name a few. It's a widespread belief among experts that the linguistic confusion is related to patterns of language socialization adopted at home (Lanza 1997) and is sensitive to the frequency of the interference in the interlocutor (Genesee). In essence, the more the child is exposed to interference, the more he will use it himself.

However, there seems to be general agreement that the language mix ​​can be suppressed if the parents consistently adhere to the
Grammont principle OPOL (Goodz, 1989).

So far it seems simple. But studies conducted show a non-negligible detail: even parents convinced  to strictly adhere to the rule OPOL, in fact they are not always consistent, without realizing it though (Goodz, 1989). A parent himself, being exposed to a bilingual context, may have a tendency to mix, thus creating an opening to interference in which the child will feel entitled to use them.

Why so fussy about this?

Underlying this discussion are in fact eternal structural models that meet or better collide, without finding a unique foundation in support of either.

Academic experts have long been in search of the reason why these interferences occur. Which brain structure allows interference? How does the brain work? And yet, does it undergo changes in cognitive development?

It is observed that an early bilingual child tends to go through a phase of interference that gradually disappear towards the age of 3. This phenomenon has been interpreted as evidence that in the brain there is initially a single undifferentiated language system, the unitary system; nevertheless modern evidence established that bilingual children are able to distinguish between two languages ​​at the earliest stages of language development, thus suggesting that instead we have from the beginning two different language systems (
Genesee, F. 1989 Early bilingual development: One language or two. Journal of Child Language, 16: 161-179. Reproduced in L. Wei (Ed.), The Bilingual Reader, p. 327-343, London: Routledge.)

One or two systems? A fascinating question.

As mentioned before, the observation of the tendency to mix languages ​​in the early years of life supports the theory of a unitary language system.

Some have also suggested a three-phase development (
Volterra and Taeschner 1978):

 - Initially, the (lexical and syntactic) system is unified

- Differentiation of the lexicon, but syntactic unification persists

- Differentiation of both systems, syntactic and lexical

After this stage the child will be able to speak both languages ​​fluently, showing the same language skills of a monolingual child in interaction with anyone. It 's only at this point you can say that the child is actually bilingual (Volterra and Taeschner 1978).

Are there other explanations for the linguistic confusion?

There have been highlighted several situations that could give plausible explanations to the phenomenon of linguistic confusion.

Among these ones: a tendency to resort to the richer vocabulary in one language  A to compensate for the shortcomings in the poorer language B has been detected, another trend was observed in the case of specific fields in which the speaker had the habit to use the language more frequently and was more familiar with the lexicon. Other hypotheses have been advanced regarding the simplicity and greater expressiveness of a language A over language B (Genesee).

Susanne Doepke (1998) examined the linguistic interference in German-English bilingual children with the aim of finding evidence for the existence of two separate linguistic systems from the early stages of language development. In hes experiment she took a group of monolingual children as a reference in assessing the degree of language development of bilingual children compared to their monolingual peers.

It was found that the development of bilingual children is comparable to monolinguals, although the first is slightly slower for both the dominant language (in this case English) and for the minority one (German, in this specific study).

 By examining the overall frequency of interference, Doepke encountered a greater flow from the minority to the majority language. However, in both languages ​​interference appear to decrease with time.

 There should however be a distinction between the types of interferences found: while those from language A to language B were mainly lexical (ie words transferred from one context to another language), children often tended instead to incorporate English verbs into the system morphological German, then from B to A. One could assume then that the language structurally stronger influences the one which is structurally weaker, as is the case of German over English.

 It follows that the children had not only proven to be able to distinguish the two languages ​​at the pragmatic level, or consciously choosing the right language according to their interlocutor, but they were also able to differentiate between languages ​​on the structural level.


According to the
competition model, more frequent, reliable and perceptually salient features of a language are acquired more easily. The child who learns a language will find it easier to acquire marked features over unmarked. In the case of learning two languages, precisely the salient features are acquired first, and if there are similar elements between the two competing languages, ​​this will lead to a greater linguistic confusion.

So the more languages ​​are distant, the lower is the risk of mixing them. The child who learns two languages ​​makes the effort to constantly compare the two languages ​​in an attempt to differentiate, to identify salient features that differ from the other language.

Language learning proceeds by way of contrast: the child compares the two languages ​​and acquires them or because A differs from B or because A is similar to B.

 As to the question of two separate systems, the results of Doepke's studies identify evidence for this theory. However, these systems do not seem to be hermetically separated from one another, but rather permeable, allowing structural interferences.


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