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Sign Language Studies 3.1 (2002) 4-33

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Evaluating Attributions of Delay and Confusion in Young Bilinguals:
Special Insights from Infants Acquiring a Signed and a Spoken Language

Laura Ann Petitto and Siobhan Holowka

Janus stood at the end of the year waiting to open the gate; He looks back over the year that just passed and shakes his head in distaste. “These humans are strange” he says to himself—“they never do learn their lessons. The same old mistakes year after year—for centuries—the same situation . . .”

Patricia Andersen, “Roman God of Gates and Doors”

THE STRIKING image of Janus, the Roman god, seizes our imagination, as he is depicted with two faces, each gazing in opposite directions. With one set of eyes cast toward a rising sun and the other toward a setting sun, he was the god of beginnings but one who could also ensure good endings. For nearly a century, parents, educators, and scientists have, like Janus, been of two minds about the bilingual child, a phenomenon that is so pervasive that we have come to call it “the bilingual paradox” in our laboratory (Petitto et al. 2001). [End Page 4] As if with eyes cast toward the positive light of a rising sun, we freely marvel at the seemingly effortless ways that young children can acquire two or more languages simultaneously if exposed to them in early life. At the same time, with eyes cast toward the darker light of a setting sun, we view early simultaneous bilingual exposure suspiciously, fearing that exposing a young child to two languages too early may cause language delay and, worse, language confusion. Indeed, the general perspective that young children are somehow harmed by early bilingual exposure is reflected both in educational settings and in comments made by the many parents raising bilingual children who visit our laboratory. For example, the fear that exposing a child to another language too early may interrupt “normal” language development is reflected in contemporary educational practice, whereby children in many countries around the world receive their first formal schooling in the other majority language well after the developmentally crucial toddler years. As support for this practice, many have invoked the dreaded notion of “language contamination” that ostensibly results from early exposure to another language (e.g., Crawford 1999). Following this general spirit, parents visiting our laboratory often opt to “hold back” one of the family’s two languages in their child’s early life. They believe that it may be better to establish one language firmly before exposing their child to the family’s other language so as to avoid confusing the child. They also worry that very early bilingual language exposure may put their child in danger of never being as competent in either of the two languages as monolingual children are in one.

In an attempt to shed light on such issues and by using a variety of techniques, researchers have examined the impact on the young child of acquiring two languages simultaneously from a very early age. Despite recent, growing scientific evidence that early simultaneous bilingual language exposure is not developmentally detrimental to children, debate among researchers about the nature of early bilingual language acquisition persists. In this article we review the empirical findings and theoretical implications of contemporary studies of young children acquiring two languages simultaneously at a very young age, and we review new findings from our own laboratory relevant to the question at hand: Does early simultaneous bilingual [End Page 5] language exposure cause children to be language delayed and confused? We evaluate this question in young children acquiring two spoken languages and, crucially, in young children acquiring a signed and a spoken language because signing-speaking children provide a powerful new lens into all childhood bilingualism that is not available from the study of young bilinguals acquiring two spoken languages. Our overarching goal in examining these two populations is to shed new light on all childhood bilingualism...


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