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Focus on Bilingualism: Bilingualism is More Than The Sum of Its Parts

By: Alejandro Brice, Ph.D, CCC-SLP, Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SL
As bilingual speech-language pathologists, one of the more complex issues to convey to others is that bilingualism is a unique experience and that bilingual or multilingual speakers are not the sum of their two languages.  Grosjean (1989) stated that a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person.  This applies to evaluation and treatment of bilingual speech and language.
Phonetically speaking, Flege, Schirru, and McKay (2003) have shown that the phonetic systems of bilinguals interact. Age of arrival to the country (e.g., early vs. late) and amount of first language (L1) use determined the extent to which speech production of English was influenced (vowels in this study).  With regards to vocabulary, research by Pearson and Pearson (2004) recommend the use of Total Conceptual Vocabulary so that students will not be identified as having small vocabularies.  Therefore, bilingual vocabulary should be only be considered when both languages are measured jointly.   Montrul (2006) documented that Spanish-English speaking adults were capable of achieving balanced syntactic abilities in both of their languages.  These results indicate that the adults showed robust knowledge of both L1 and L2 syntactic structures, something that would not have been possible if the languages were separate and did not interact.  Hence, positive transference seemed to have occurred at the syntactic level.  Brice and Montgomery (1996) showed that language impaired students and English language learners (ELLs)  may display pragmatic problems in the classroom, albeit due to different causes.  The ELL students demonstrated pragmatic communicative competence and were in the initial stages of acquiring English.  Consequently, the Spanish-English speaking students were accessing both their Spanish linguistic and pragmatic skills in order to accomplish pragmatic proficiency.  The question then arises if dominance and proficiency are suitable theoretical constructs appropriate for bilingual students.
Language Dominance and Proficiency.
The concepts of language proficiency and language dominance seem to imply that one should investigate each language separately instead of in a combined fashion.  Hence, proficiency should be investigated in terms of communicative proficiency utilizing a combined approach as is seen in vocabulary studies where total vocabulary and total conceptual vocabulary measures are obtained (Pearson & Pearson, 2004). Dominance varies across speech and language domains (phonetics, phonology, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, etc.) and also seems to vary within each speech domain.  Flege and Efting (1987) demonstrated that bilingual speakers are capable of creating different phonetic categories for voiceless stops across languages.  Grosjean’s (2001) notions of language modes fits this paradigm.   Language modes refers to what extent L1 and L2 are activated and to the continuum of activation among the languages.  Bullock, Toribido, González, and Dalola (2006) summarize this by stating, “Such research contends that bilinguals’ language use is malleable in that they may behave differently according to which language they are producing or perceiving at a given time” (p. 9).  Hence, dominance in a bilingual child is not an overall ability assigned to L1 or L2 but one that varies according to language, language domain, and task.
In sum, bilingual speakers must be viewed as competent communicators who are capable of speaking and communicating in L1 (native language), L2 (second language or English in the U.S.), and combining their overall language abilities from both their languages (L3).  This combined language is never deactivated (Grosjean, 2001), hence, evaluation and treatment must occur in a combined fashion to fully encompass the bilingual’s overall communicative abilities.
Brice, A., & Montgomery, J. (1996). Adolescent pragmatic skills: A comparison of Latino students in ESL and speech and language programs. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 27, 68-81.
Bullock, B., E., Toribio, A., J., González, V, & Dalola, A.  (2006). Language dominance and performance outcomes in bilingual pronunciation. In M. G. O’Brien, C. Shea, & J. Archibald (Eds.), Proceedings of the 8th Generative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition Conference (pp. 9-16). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.
Flege, J.E. & Eefting, W. (1987). Production and perception of English stops by native       Spanish speakers. Journal of Phonetics 15, 67–83.
Flege, J., Shirru, C., & MacKay, I. (2003).  Interaction between the native and second language phonetic subsystems.  Speech Communication, 40, 467-491.
Grosjean, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in  one person. Brain and Language, 36, 30–15.
Montrul, S.  (2006).  On the bilingual competence of Spanish heritage speakers: Syntax, lexical-semantics and processing.  International Journal of Bilingualism, 10(1), 37-69.
Pearson, J. , & Pearson, B. Z. (2004). Bilingual lexical development: Influences,  contexts, and processes. In B. Goldstein (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers (pp. 77-104). Baltimore, Brookes.
This Month’s Featured Authors:
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of Central Florida

Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at [email protected]
Dr. Roanne G. Brice is the Assistant to the Chair for the Department of Child, Family and Community Sciences at the University of Central Florida. Her research interests have focused on language and beginning literacy skills in bilingual children and students with disorders/disabilities. In addition to teaching at the university level, Dr. Brice has been an itinerant and self-contained classroom speech-language pathologist as well as a general education classroom teacher. She may be reached at [email protected]

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