Separating language difference from disorder for bilingual speakers

Author: Weifeng Han

Han, Weifeng, 2018 Separating language difference from disorder for bilingual speakers, Flinders University, College of Nursing and Health Sciences

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Child second language acquisition (cL2A) is a much-debated topic in second language acquisition (SLA) studies (Blom & Unsworth, 2010), especially when it comes to the acquisition at various “interfaces” of the target language (Slabakova, 2008; White, 2009). For speech-language pathologists (SLPs), non-biased language assessment of bilingual children can be complex (Caesar & Kohler, 2007; Gillam, Peña, Bedore, Bohman, & Mendez-Perez, 2013). It becomes even more complicated, both theoretically and clinically, when involving first language (L1) bidialectal speakers. There has been, however, a lack of understanding of bidialectal children’s L1 syntactic and semantic development as well as a shortage of data on the development of L1 bidialectal children’s second language (L2) acquisition (W. Han, Brebner, & McAllister, 2016), especially at the “interfaces”.

Within the Universal Grammar (UG) framework, it is proposed that UG is common to all language learners. There are arguments, however, as to whether L2 learners have the same access to UG in L2 as L1 learners do, or whether all L2 learners have the same pattern of access to UG. This study is motivated by the need to link speech-language pathology and syntactic-semantic typological studies in a bidialectal/multidialectal vs. bilingual/multilingual context. Under the UG framework, it endeavors to reveal the interactive (whether positive or negative) relationship between L1 bidialectism and L2 acquisition by laying special emphasis on early L2 learners’ syntactic-semantic awareness. The general question, therefore, is “does first language bidialectism in Chinese impact on child learners’ second language syntactic-semantic interface awareness in English?”. Accordingly, the general hypothesis proposes that first language bidialectism has a positive impact on child learners’ second language syntactic-semantic interface awareness. The expected outcome of L1 bidialectism on L2, therefore, is that the more syntactically different the dialects of the first language are from each other, the better awareness the learner will have at the syntax-semantics interface in the second language.

Four structures are included in the study, that is the ambiguous focus (the ONLY structure), the negation of universal quantification (the EVERY structure), the ditransitive construction (the BUY structure), and the topic-comment construction (the T-C structure). All four structures have parallel forms in both English and the Chinese dialects under study (i.e. Mandarin and Wu). However, while the ONLY structure and the EVERY structure are ambiguous and have two readings in English (i.e. the L2), they have only one of the readings in the Chinese dialects (i.e. the L1). On the contrary, for the BUY structure and the T-C structure, both are ambiguous and have two readings in L1 Chinese, but only one reading in L2 English.

In order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the role L1 bidialectism may have onto the L2 learning at the syntax-semantics interface, a mixed method with both quantitative and qualitative analyses was adopted. Correspondingly, there was a two-phase design (i.e. phase one – the Sentence Picture Matching Task (SPMT) and phase two – the Interview). Altogether, there were 78 L1-monodialectal (Mandarin only) and 79 L1-bidialectal (Mandarin and Wu) participants recruited for the phase one SPMT. The top and bottom 10% from each group (15 monodialectal and 16 bidialectal) according to their SPMT scores were selected for the interview.

Quantitatively, an independent t-test was first performed. The results showed that the bidialectal groups had a better overall performance than the monodialectal groups. Taking a close look at each structure, the LSD post-hoc and the Tukey HSD homogeneity tests found, however, while bidialectal participants performed significantly better than the monodialectal participants for the ONLY and the EVERY structures, there was no significant difference between the two groups for the BUY or the T-C structures. The GLM model corroborated these results. The model further demonstrated that the participants’ L1 dialectal background was the only factor that was related to their performance being significantly different between the monodialectal and bidialectal groups. The qualitative results helped explain why the participants had chosen the targets and showed at most that one group had better reasoning than the other. The results of the qualitative analysis suggest that this better performance came from the more complex L1 knowledge of the bidialectal participants. A general picture we can see from both the quantitative and qualitative analyses, therefore, is that L1 bidialectal advantage emerges when the same structure in L2 is semantically inclusive of that in L1, but not the other way around. That is, there is an L1 bidialectal advantage in L2 syntax-semantics interface acquisition when the same structure has more readings in the L2 than in the L1, but not vice versa.

The study results provide evidence to support that L2 learners have, at least, partial access to UG, and L1 bidialectism is an important variable to take into consideration in bilingual research and clinical practices with bilingual clients. One difference between L1 mono- and bidialectal learners is that while L1 knowledge is present for both groups, the bidialectals rely more on UG to access the new language, and the monodialectals are subject more to the existing L1 knowledge. It is proposed that L1 bidialectals start at a higher level with better syntactic-semantic skills in L2 than their L1 monodialectal counterparts. This is because they have a better syntax-semantics interface awareness due to the complexities of their L1 dialects. That is, there is an L1 bidialectism benefit. Furthermore, the benefit of less L1 negative transfer does not necessarily come from learners’ L2 proficiency or his/her amount of exposure to the target language.

As one of the few attempts to embed the L1 bidialectism in the L2 acquisition at the interface of syntax and semantics, the current study has shown that the bidialectism in the home language is a variable that researchers cannot afford to neglect. The value of this study, in the context of speech-language pathology and applied linguistics, in particular, is that it demonstrates that large groups of mono- and bidialectal speakers have different patterns at the syntax-semantics interface for L2. Therefore, there are multiple implications (methodological, theoretical and clinical) from this for future research.

Keywords: Bilingualism, Bidialectism, Syntax-Semantics Interface, Language Disorder

Subject: Speech Pathology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Nursing and Health Sciences
Supervisor: Chris Brebner