Virginia Gathercole

Virginia Müller Gathercole is a Professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Wales Bangor. She is a specialist in bilingualism in very young children. Her main research in language acquisition was for monolinguals but she also studied some bilinguals (Spanish/English in Miami and Welsh/English).

Virginia came to talk to our group on 22nd April 2006, and investigated the following question: Is language acquisition similar or different between the monolinguals and the bilinguals?

The language is a system that has many components:

  • Sounds – phonetics
  • Grouping of sounds. The grouping is done differently amongst the languages – phonology
  • Minimal unit of meaning – morphology
  • Longer unit of meaning – syntax
  • semantics

The 5 steps above are an abstract way of splitting the language system. The language allows knowledge of the world – cognition, and has social settings. A child learns a language by figuring out the language system and the acquisition follows 5 principles:

Principle 1:

Acquisition piece by piece: The child learns a word within a specific context. For example, when he sees a vehicle through the window, he may say “car”. However, when he sees the same vehicle while in the street, he may not say “car”.

Principle 2:

The acquisition is in a context before abstracting common elements and applying them to other context or words. He learns the verbs “talked”, “walked”, “loved” and later he realises that he can make “watched".

Principle 3:

Emergence of a structure from the accumulated knowledge.

  • Attention is paid to the shape of the things and the name of the things.
  • “-ed” used to indicate an action in the past and application to other verbs that were initially used.

Slowly, the child builds up a system.

Principle 4:

Influence of the language being learned on timing/sequence of acquisition. Simple structures of the verbs are learned first. Then the complex structures of the verb forms are learned.

For example:

Hablar (to speak)

Hablo, habla-s, habla, habla-mos, habla-eis, habla-n.

For Spanish children, “habla” (he speaks) is easier to learn. The other forms are more complex.

To speak

I speak, you speak, he speak-s, we speak, you speak, they speak.

For English children, “speak” is easier to learn. “he speaks” is a more complex structure.

Another example:

The grammatical gender is transparent is Spanish. “a” indicates a feminine gender. “o” indicates a masculine gender. The Spanish children have learned this principle by the time they are 2 years old.

In Welsh, the grammatical gender is more complex. The Welsh speaking children master this principle when they are much older, around 10 years old.

Principle 5:

Exposure to the language for timing/speed of development.

There is a critical mass of input data to the acquisition of the language. The more the child is exposed to the language the faster the child can reach the critical mass of knowledge.

BUT the exposure with complexity and cognitively is more relevant.

The exposure to the languages can delay initially the development of the bilingual structures. The child needs more time to get to the critical mass.

The emergence of the structure of the language comes from the accumulated knowledge.

Monolinguals and bilinguals learn the simple forms first and the more complex forms of the language later.

The child has the innate abilities to learn the first 3 principles. The 5th principle is only under the influence of the input of the learned language, i.e. it is up to the parents/environment for the child to learn the language.

In conclusion, a child learns a language, they are not taught the language. By using an analogy, the language is the food. The parents/environment provides the food and the child grows up.

The monolinguals end up learning one language. The bilinguals end up learning 2 languages.

Ginny gave an example supporting the conceptual abilities of the bilinguals children.

The bilinguals are better than monolinguals at discarding irrelevant information.

Monolinguals and bilinguals were tested when performing 2 tasks.

There were triangles and squares. There were some blue and red triangles. There were some blue and red squares.

They were told to put all the blues on one side and all the reds on another side. Both monolinguals and bilinguals did the task easily

Then they were asked to put all the triangles on one sides and all the reds on another sides. It was found the bilinguals were better at this task. They did better because they are accustomed to block out the irrelevant information. They are accustomed to switching, like switching between their 2 languages.


Esmee Faribarn