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Bilingualism as a First Language - December 2009

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Bilingualism as a first language

By: Alejandro Brice, Ph.D, CCC-SLP, Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP

Bilingualism as a first language

Grosjean (1989) wrote that a bilingual speaker does not consist of two monolinguals speakers. Rather a bilingual speaker is an individual who has access to two languages that interact with each other constantly, even when one language is the primary mode being activated. A bilingual individual understands this interaction; yet, monolingual speakers may not fully comprehend this complex aspect. When young children acquire two languages, their first language is bilingualism. Their two languages interact in positive and sometimes negative ways from the very first day they are exposed to the two languages (i.e., language transference and interference). Research has indicated that young bilingual children can appropriately code switch as early as 18 months of age when spoken to in L1 or L2 (Brice & Wertheim, 2004/2005). Hence, no language confusion appears to be occurring for typically developing children.

The bilingual speaker has access to both their interacting languages at all times. Hence, the bilingual speaker never truly shuts one language off even when speaking in monolingual fashion. A bilingual has access to two phonologies, two lexicons, two syntactic systems, and two pragmatic manners of interaction. They can choose which system may best convey their message. A more appropriate means of classifying a bilingual's language abilities is not to think of their first language (L1), nor their second language (L2) abilities; but rather, to think of their abilities as a third combined language form (L3) that occurs at all times. L3 is a continual interaction and combination of L1 and L2. L3 cannot be subtracted from L1 or L2. Sometimes, L3 involves code switching, or code mixing. At other times, L3 occurs even when in monolingual mode. When the bilingual speaker is speaking solely L2 (e.g., English) or L1 (e.g., Spanish); their brain is always in L3 mode (i.e., bilingual).

The implication for speech-language pathologists is that any assessment of a bilingual child's learning and/or language abilities should include their combined dual language abilities. If the SLP is fortunate to have results from both languages, then these results must not be looked at separately. Assessment and test results should be investigated as combined L1 and L2 efforts (i.e., L3 mode). The SLP should look at both languages and their combined receptive and expressive language abilities in oral and written language, in phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and semantics. Poplack (1980) postulated that a bilingual speaker has to abide by both languages and their grammar rules when code switching and code mixing. We will postulate that even when the bilingual speaker is communicating in solely one language, he or she is keeping track of both language grammars simultaneously. An example of this is seen in momentary language interference when a bilingual speaker attempts to read an English word as a Spanish word. Or when a bilingual speaker displays a broader definition of vocabulary in one language because they have accessed the vocabulary meaning in both languages (e.g., "father" in English, "padre" in Spanish, "padrastro" or stepfather in Spanish; hence, "father" can also encompass a broader meaning to include "stepfather").

In conclusion, the term “bilingual” does not accurately reflect the complexity of the language system of the child who has bilingualism as a first language. Bilingualism is not simply the use of two languages; but rather, use of three language modes (L1, L2 and their combined L3). A bilingual individual always operates in some varying degree of L3 mode because L1 and L2 cannot be completely deactivated or separated.


Brice, A., & Wertheim, E. (2004/2005). Language differentiation in young bilingual children. Tejas. Texas Journal of Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, 28, 24-31.

Grosjean, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person. Brain and Language, 36, 30–15.

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: Toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics, 18, 581-618.

This Month's Featured Authors:
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Roanne Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of Central Florida
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.

Many thanks to Dr. Alejandro E. Brice for providing this article for this months newsletter

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.

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

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

Tags: December 2009 Newsletter SLP Bilingualism Article