February 12, 2008 Feature

Second Language Acquisition: Success Factors in Sequential Bilingualism

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Second-language (L2) acquisition may begin at almost any age or life stage. For some, L2 acquisition begins in childhood in educational programs that use a language different from that spoken at home. For others, L2 learning begins with visits or immigration to another country. In all instances, L2 learners vary in their maturational states, first language (L1) ability, world experience, and reasons for L2 acquisition.


English is the most widely spoken L2 both nationally and globally. In the United States, native speakers of Spanish, Vietnamese, Urdu, Hmong, and Russian—among 100 other languages—acquire English as L2 during childhood, adolescence, or beyond. Conversely, increasing numbers of native English-speakers in the United States strive to learn Spanish, Chinese, American Sign Language, French, Japanese, Arabic, or one of many other second languages.

Most individuals acquiring L2 continue to need L1. In Minnesota, for example, native English-speaking children who attend educational immersion programs in Chinese continue to develop their English skills, and native Spanish-speakers use L1 to communicate with family members and English (L2) in educational or vocational settings. Both L1 and L2 are tools that serve complementary and sometimes overlapping functions. In recognition of this phenomenon, L2 learners are also referred to as "sequential bilinguals"—individuals with consistent experience in one language beginning at birth, who then acquire L2 at some point in their lives.

A number of practical questions span the margins of typical and atypical sequential language learning and use. Questions with the broadest clinical implications are: What factors facilitate or challenge sequential bilingualism? How should language planning proceed in less than optimal conditions?

MOM: Means, Opportunity and Motive

The same interacting factors that contribute to L1 success are at play in successful sequential bilingualism. MOM—means, opportunities, and motive—affect the mastery and maintenance of any complex behavior. Means refers to learner-internal resources; those that affect language include the integrity of the cognitive, sensory, social, emotional, and neurobiological systems. Any developmental or acquired breach in the integrity of one or more of these systems that present challenges to L1 learning also affect L2 acquisition and use.

Opportunities refer to social factors, including the availability of rich language in the environment and diverse opportunities to develop and use a particular language for meaningful communicative interactions. Language opportunities come in spoken or written form, and through private channels or public media.

Potential language-use environments are home, school, work, health clubs, or cyberspace. Purposes of L1 and L2 are described as personal, educational or vocational, formal or informal, and spoken or written. Partners in these environments are family members, classmates, colleagues, friends, neighbors, community professionals, and other individuals (store clerk, bank teller, bus driver) encountered in daily life. Increased opportunities to use L1 or L2 for meaningful interactions facilitate ability in that language. Limited opportunities or experiences in either L1 or L2 will stifle development or ability in that language. Reduced outcomes or even declines in a single language because of limited opportunities are considered non-pathological—a natural consequence of evolving circumstances (e.g., Anderson, 2004; de Bot & Makoni, 2005; Jia & Aaronson, 2003; Montrul, 2005; Schmid, 2003; see Kohnert, 2008).

The final "M" in "MOM" refers to motive. Motive reflects interactions between internal and external resources—between environmental needs and opportunities as well as personal preferences inextricably linked to social contexts. In its broadest sense, language is a tool used in the service of communicative interactions allowing things never before said to be uttered and understood. Given individuals' innate predisposition to communicate with other conspecies (belonging to the same genus), the language spoken by those in our social networks may be considered the tool of choice to give and receive information. For individuals who speak two languages, motive may interact with both partners and purposes—one language may be preferred to communicate with a parent or child, another to complete a business transaction. For both older and younger bilingual individuals, motive and opportunities to use language for rich, meaningful interactions tend to go hand-in-hand.

Another aspect of motive is the social status or prestige associated with different languages. As the most valuable currency in the United States, English looms large in terms of motivation. Not only do young immigrants in this country learn English within a single generation (e.g., Kohnert & Bates, 2002), but many third-generation immigrants speak only English, with little or no ability in the language of their grandparents (Alba, Logan, Lutz, & Stults, 2002). The social, political, and economic clout of English is one reason why children who speak English at home as L1 and attend primary foreign-language immersion educational programs are not in jeopardy of reduced L1 outcomes. On the contrary, majority-language children attending L2 immersion educational programs show high levels of language and academic achievement in both L1 and L2 (Genesee, 2004).

For some minority L1 speakers in the United States, the power and prestige of English undercut the value and subsequent motivation to use L1, at least for youth who are also shifting their primary sphere of social influence from family to peers and to the broader community. The net result in some cases is monolingualism in English instead of proficiency in both home and community languages. Although some have argued that ability in the mainstream community language trumps all others, sociologists have shown that increased ability in a minority home language (L1) in addition to proficiency in the community L2 increases academic aspirations and achievement in immigrant youth beyond those of peers who speak only English (see Schmid, 2001, for review). Increased social value for both languages spoken by sequential bilinguals seems needed to counter this trend.

Thus when MOM is sufficient, ability in both L1 and L2 will be developed and maintained. When one or more aspects of MOM is weak, either language—or both—may be affected. Low proficiency in either language because of reduced opportunities or motivation is consistent with typical sequential bilingualism. Reduced proficiency in both languages because of developmental delays, disease, or injury is not typical and comes under the purview of speech-language pathologists and audiologists. These cases of atypical sequential bilingualism require a different approach to language planning.

Reduced Means and Language Planning

The range of communication disorders affecting the monolingual population also affects sequential bilinguals, most likely in similar numbers. Indeed, L2 learners are a common denominator within the broader discipline of communication sciences and disorders—they are present in all settings (outpatient clinics, schools, university clinics, hospitals, or private practice) and in all diagnostic categories (such as late talkers, hearing loss, stuttering, or traumatic brain injury). For example, a subset of individuals who learn L2 lag behind peers in L1 because of weaknesses in the internal systems that support speech and language. Other individuals who learned two languages beginning at different life stages may acquire communication disorders as a result of disease, injury, or aging. When faced with diminished adequate means, how should long-term language planning proceed?

Questions related to long-term language planning at the intersection of sequential bilingualism and communication disorders can be addressed in at least two ways. One is to consider what is possible and another is to ask what is desirable. In terms of possibilities, the issue is whether individuals can learn, recover, or use two different languages to functional levels commensurate with monolingual individuals who have similar system weaknesses. Can a child with severe hearing loss and cochlear implants learn Hebrew (L2) in addition to his or her native English? Can a 71-year-old man recover functional access to two different languages following stroke-induced aphasia? Can an adolescent who stutters be proficient in his native Russian as well as English (L2)? Can children with primary developmental language impairment learn one language at home and another language at school to levels comparable to those of monolingual peers with language impairment?

The answer to all of these questions seems to be a resounding yes (cf., Håkansson, Salameh, & Nettelbladt, 2003; Kohnert, 2004; Bernstein Ratner, 2004; Robbins, Green, & Waltzman, 2004). The human capacity to acquire and use two or more languages seems so robust that even when learner-internal mechanisms go awry, bilingualism is possible given sufficient opportunities and motivation. It is also true, of course, that the underlying deficit will manifest in both L1 and L2.

Given the feasibility of attaining two languages to some level—even when means are weak—we can then consider the desirability of or motivations for such an endeavor, given that enriched opportunities are needed to support both. Are there personal, social, or vocational advantages to functional skills in two different languages that warrant providing opportunities and support in both? Sometimes a little vetting is needed to determine past, present, and anticipated future roles for L1 and L2 on the bigger life stage for the client and his or her family. Are both languages needed for meaningful communication in different settings, with different partners? Can one language be sacrificed without compromising the person's quality of life, in terms of personal relationships or social or professional aspirations?

Or, because of natural life circumstances, are two different languages—two different social tools—needed to communicate across the range of environments in which the individual functions? This need is clearly the case for individuals living in the United States who speak a minority L1 (such as Vietnamese, Spanish, or Korean) with life partners and English (L2) in educational, vocational, or rehabilitation settings. The level of proficiency needed in L1 and L2 will vary considerably based on different patterns of use across these settings.

Potential Gains and Losses

Sometimes, engaging in L2 acquisition seems more a matter of choice than circumstance, as when the majority community language also is spoken by the client's family. In these cases, it is useful to consider what is potentially gained or lost by engaging in the L2 acquisition process. For example, are there advantages for engaging in developing any complex skill, even if mastery or elite status is not anticipated? Should adults of various ages take up jogging, at whatever pace, despite little chance of completing the Boston marathon in less than four hours? Should children with varying degrees of physical coordination, artistic ability, or math aptitude be encouraged to engage in youth sports, watercolor painting, or algebra?

Clearly, society encourages participation at all skill levels. Participants in these activities implicitly add significant value to their lives through improved health, creativity, or social engagement. Some level of learning will take place with practice, adding to a knowledge base that supports—rather than detracts from—other abilities. We can perhaps extend this perspective to language—should L2 opportunities be reserved only for those who demonstrate the greatest facility or potential in language? Will the addition of another language support or detract from overall communicative abilities?

Consider Tamia, a 20-year-old international exchange student I met during her year of study at the University of Minnesota. Tamia was born and raised in Japan, with Japanese as L1. She had a severe bilateral hearing loss with associated delays in L1 speech and language development. In Japan, English is a required L2 for school-age children, but not for Tamia. Because of her hearing loss, she was not allowed to study English. The professionals felt that L2 instruction would be too demanding and would curb her L1 development. Tamia viewed this restriction to a single language, based solely on her hearing status, as professionally, socially, and personally handicapping. She eventually learned English, despite the system bias, and is both an example and advocate for other individuals in Japan with hearing loss. The issue is similar for English-speaking families in the United States who are considering L2 immersion education for a kindergarten child with a diagnosed speech or language impairment. No single decision is right for all individuals. Environmental resources (supportive allied professionals and family members), potential opportunities, and client motivation are important factors to consider.

The presence of an underlying speech, language, or hearing disorder does not diminish the need or desire for communicative ability in two languages. The clinical challenge is to create conditions that facilitate learning, recovery, or use of languages that support participation in life activities deemed meaningful by the client and his or her family. It does not require that professionals always speak both or all languages used by their clients. Given the hundreds of different combinations of languages spoken in the United States, this client-clinician language match is not always possible. However, clinical professionals can serve as knowledgeable advocates in long-term language planning for clients.

Speech-language pathologists and audiologists can help allied professionals understand language in its broadest sense and the roles different languages play in individuals' lives. Professionals may also help to identify and create additional opportunities to use each language through a variety of indirect facilitation methods that involve Internet resources and computer software, collaborations with bilingual spouses, parents or community volunteers, or mediated interventions with language-matched peers or siblings (Kohnert, 2008).

Kathryn Kohnert, is an associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, an affiliate graduate faculty member in the English as a Second Language Program, and co-director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Processes in Language at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Contact her at kohne005@umn.edu.   

cite as: Kohnert, K. (2008, February 12). Second Language Acquisition: Success Factors in Sequential Bilingualism. The ASHA Leader.


Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39, 3, 467-484.

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Bernstein Ratner, N. (2004). Fluency and stuttering in bilingual children. In B. Goldstein (Ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish-English speakers (pp. 287-308).

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Robbins, A. M., Green, J., & Waltzman, S. (2004). Bilingual oral language proficiency in children with cochlear implants. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 130, 644-7.

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Schmid, M. (2003). First language attrition: The methodology revised. International Journal of Bilingualism, 8, 239-256. 


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