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Bilingual first language acquisition and the mechanisms of substrate influence. Stephen Matthews, University of Hong Kong & Virginia Yip, Chinese University of Hong Kong. 1. Theoretical background .

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bilingual first language acquisition and the mechanisms of substrate influence
Bilingual first language acquisition and the mechanismsof substrate influence

Stephen Matthews,

University of Hong Kong


Virginia Yip,

Chinese University of Hong Kong

1 theoretical background
1. Theoretical background

“Linguists who study language contact often seek to describe changes at the level of linguistics systems in isolation and abstraction from speakers. Sometimes they tend to treat the outcome of bilingual interaction in static rather than dynamic terms, and lose sight of the fact that the bilingual individual is the ultimate locus of language contact” (Romaine 1996: 573, our emphasis)

1 1 mechanisms of contact induced language change thomason 2001
1.1 Mechanisms of contact-induced language change (Thomason 2001)

1. Code-switching

2. Code alternation

3. Passive familiarity

4. ‘Negotiation’ (approximation)

5. Second language acquisition strategies (interference/transfer)

6. Bilingual first language acquisition

7. Deliberate decision (language planning/engineering)

  • Synergy: in situations of widespread

bi-/multilingualism, any combination of these factors

could be operating.

thomason s example of bilingual first language acquisition
Thomason's example of bilingual first language acquisition
  • In bilingual acquisition of French and German, frequencies of some French word orders are affected, relative to monolingual children
  • Also in French/Dutch (Hulk & van der Linden 1996)

(1) live lire (Anouk, 2;05;20)

book read

(2) Anouk riz manger (Anouk, 2;05;20)

Anouk rice eat-INFIN


The Hong Kong Bilingual Child Language Corpus


  • subjects exposed to Cantonese and English from birth in one parent – one language families
  • longitudinal data for Timmy (1;5-3;6), Sophie (1;06-3;0), Kathryn (3;6-4;6) and Llywelyn (2;0-3;04)
  • Total of 191 tagged files in 2 languages
  • special features: digital audio and video demo files
corpus information
Corpus information
  • project homepage:


  • corpus available at CHILDES (Child Language Data Exchange System ) archive:
1 2 mechanisms of creole formation
1.2 Mechanisms of creole formation
  • 1.2.1 Theories invoking child first language acquisition
  • The Language Bioprogram Hypothesis (Bickerton 1981, 1984)
  • Little discussion of the role of bilingual children
1 2 2 theories invoking adult second language acquisition
1.2.2 Theories invoking adultsecond language acquisition
  • Relexification: “substratal features are transferred into the creole by means of relexification... this mental process applies in a situation which involves second language acquisition” (Lefebvre 1998: 34-5)
  • “the creators of a creole, adult native speakers of substratum languages, use the properties of their native lexicons, the parametric values and the semantic interpretation rules of their native grammars in creating the creole.” (Lefebvre 2001: 186-7, emphasis added)
theories invoking adult second language acquisition
Theories invoking adult second language acquisition
  • Contact ecology: “attestations of transfers from substrate languages in several creoles are among convincing evidence against the central role of children in their development.” (Mufwene 2001: 131)
  • Assumption of these approaches: adults, not children are agents of substrate influence
a role for bilingual children
A role for bilingual children?
  • Additional possibilities: transfer in bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA) and/or child second language acquisition (child SLA)
  • Transfer is relatively well understood in adult SLA, still poorly understood in BFLA (e.g. directionality of transfer, determining factors)
  • The epistemological relationship and demarcation between BFLA and child SLA remain unclear (Yip, to appear)
2 1 factors determining transfer
2.1 Factors determining transfer
  • Language dominance: development of Language A is ahead of that of Language B. Can be measured by Mean Length of Utterance (MLU).
  • e.g. wh-in situ interrogatives develop early in Cantonese and are transferred to English in Cantonese-dominant children (Yip & Matthews 2000):

(3) You go to the what? (Timmy, 2;05)

(4) Daddy, you writing what? (Sophie, 3;5)


Dominance of Cantonese reflected in Timmy’s

MLUw between age 2;01 – 2;08.

2 1 2 input ambiguity
2.1.2 Input ambiguity
  • sentences in the adult input to children may allow more than one analysis, one based on language A and one based on language B

(5) Input sentence: I want to eat

English (target) analysis: I want to eat (something)

Chinese-based analysis: [TOPICi] I want to eat [xi]

(= I want to eat this/that)

-> This ambiguity allows the child to hypothesize that English allows null objects, like Cantonese

2 bilingual first language acquisition
2.Bilingual first language acquisition

= both languages acquired simultaneously from birth (De Houwer 1990, 1995)

  • Possible courses of development (both attested):

(i) Separate development (De Houwer 1990)

(ii) Interactive development (Döpke 2000,

Yip & Matthews 2000, among others)

null objects in bilingual data
Null objects in bilingual data

(6) You get, I eat… (Timmy, 2;02;03)

[father takes chocolates off shelf]

(7) Daddy: Timmy, do you want the rest of this?

Timmy: I don’t want. (2;07;07)

(8) Don’t break! [cautioning the adult not to

break a toy cup] (Sophie, 3;06;06)

2 2 resolution of transfer based structures
2.2 Resolution of transfer-based structures

“It is not the case that ‘errors’ or innovations in a child’s grammar survive into adulthood. Instead, children’s errors which presumably manifest a grammar (or lexicon) different from that of their parents tend to disappear in a later phase of language acquisition…” (Croft 2000: 47)

  • Do developmental errors/innovations go away? How?
  • Is this the result of normal acquisition processes,

or of schooling and literacy?

  • What happens when a community of such bi/multi-lingual children develops?
possible outcomes in the individual
Possible outcomes in the individual

1. Preemption: e.g. wh-movement largely replaces wh-in situ between age 3-4

2. Persistence: e.g. null objects persist to age 7 and beyond (Yip & Matthews 2000)

(9) Alicia: I want to put. [bringing jar of face cream]

Sophie: You want to put on your face? (6;11;10)

Alicia: Yah. (2;08;10)

differential outcomes in the individual
Differential outcomes in the individual

These differential outcomes (preemption vs. persistence) are determined in part by considerations of learnability,

e.g. input ambiguity favours null objects (Yip & Matthews 2003)

possible outcomes in a speech community
Possible outcomes in a speech community

1. Replacement: transfer-based structure(s) ironed out by adult community

2. Persistence: transfer-based structure persists as innovation in adult usage

  • These differential outcomes must be determined in part by language-internal considerations such as learnability, and in part by external factors such as ecology (Mufwene 2001)
transfer in bilingual development and substrate influence
Transfer in bilingual development and substrate influence
  • Interaction of English with southern Chinese dialects leads to similar results in Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) and in Hong Kong bilingual children
already marking perfective aspect
already marking perfective aspect

(10) She wake already. (Sophie 2;06)

(11) He go already… he go already the monster (Sophie 2;10;21)

(12) Keoi seng-zo laa (adult Cantonese)

S/he wake-PFV PRT

‘She’s woken up’

already marking perfective aspect in sce bao 1995 2002
already marking perfective aspect in SCE (Bao 1995, 2002)

(13) I wash my hand already

‘I have washed/washed my hand’

(14) The tongue red already

‘The tongue has turned/turned red/

*The tongue was red’

“Despite the syntactic difference, V-le and S-le in Chinese and S already in Singapore English, the substrate source of already is unmistakable”. (Bao 2002: 9)

give as passive marker
give as passive marker

(15) Here is give Timmy scratch.

(points to scratched leg) (Sophie, 3;06)

(16) Daddy, I already give the mosquito to bite (shows bite on tummy) (Sophie, 3;09)

one as a nominalizer in relative clauses
one as a nominalizer in relative clauses

(20) Sophie: I also want.

Father: What do you want?

Sophie: Timmy said that one. (3;08;21)

[the child has been asking for a piggy-bank]

(21) Ngo jiu Timmy gong go go (adult Cantonese)

I want Timmy talk that CL

‘I want what Timmy was talking about’

relative clauses with one as head in adult sce alsagoff and ho 1998
Relative clauses with one as head in adult SCE (Alsagoff and Ho 1998)

(22) They grow one very sweet.

‘The fruit that they grow is very sweet.’

(23) Don't have car one, I don't want.

‘I don't want [a man] who does not own a car.’

give passives in sce bao wee 1999
give-passives in SCE (Bao & Wee 1999)

(17) John give his boss scold

(18) John bei loubaan laau (adult Cantonese)

John give boss scold

‘John is scolded by his boss’

4 discussion
4. Discussion

SCE: (almost) a creole? (Ho & Platt 1993, Gupta 1994, Bao 2002)

- no longer an issue if ‘creole’ is not seen as a unique structural type (cf. e.g. Corne 1999, DeGraff 2001, Mufwene 2001)

ecology in which sce developed gupta 1994 33
Ecology in which SCE developed (Gupta 1994: 33)

(i) English-medium schools

(ii) Racially mixed districts (in which most of these schools were located) including Eurasians, Jews, Armenians and Straits Chinese

  • Both these ecologies involve child bilingualism, hence possibility of transfer in BFLA/child SLA; (ii) may resemble circumstances of creole formation, e.g. Baba Malay in Malacca (Ansaldo & Matthews 1999).
5 implications
5. Implications
  • Bilingual first language acquisition is a possible route for substrate influence, both in general and specifically in creole formation.
  • Parallel phenomena in bilingual development (HK) and in Singapore Colloquial English (SCE) illustrate this possibility.
implications bfla and or sla
Implications: BFLA and/or SLA?
  • These effects occur alongside classical second language acquisition, e.g. Chinese substrate features are incorporated into SCE in the course of both bilingual first language and child/adult second language acquisition.
  • In principle such effects are only possible in cases where interactive development occurs; the conditions for this to occur still need further investigation. Language dominance and input ambiguity both appear to be factors favoring interaction (Yip & Matthews 2000).
implications creole formation
Implications: creole formation
  • Balanced development with little or no interaction is also possible, at least in ideal circumstances where the input from both languages is both balanced (resulting in no clear pattern of language dominance) and separate (e.g. by domains of use). But such ideal situations are most unlikely to prevail in complex contact ecologies such as those of creole formation.
  • Hong Kong Research Grants Council (RGC),

ref. nos. HKU336/94H,CUHK 4002/97H, CUHK4014/02H and CUHK Direct Grant 01/02

  • Special thanks to members of our research team, especially Huang Yue-Yuan, Peng Ling-Ling, Bella Leung, Simon Huang Pai-Yuan, Gene Chu, Chen Ee San, Michelle Li and Uta Lam for their dedication and commitment at various stages of the project.