Whenever I get asked whether I am a simultaneous or a subsequent or successive bilingual, I am tempted to say "both", or answer with "I'm an early simultaneous multilingual and am still adding other languages to my repertoire". I know that I am not the only one, as most of the families I work with are in exactly the same situation. Once we start with acquiring and learning languages, we don't stop.
When trying to define the similarities or differences in language acquisition and learning in bilinguals or multilinguals, in linguistics we distinguish simultaneous from subsequent or successive bilingualism.
Simultaneous Bilingualism, or what Annick De Houwer defines as Bilingual First Language Acquisition is when children are exposed to two languages before the age of three, and they become verbal, or use, both languages in a comprehensive way. Some label these languages as La and Lα to indicate the synchronicity with which these languages are acquired. An example would be, when one parent speaks language blue with the child and the other one language red.
There are also young children who are exposed to one language since birth and to the first additional language between age 3 and 6, so, before formal instruction. Annick De Houwer defines the way they acquire languages as Early Second Language Acquisition.
For older children, who grow up with one language and the additional language is added in formal settings, once they start school around age 6, we talk about Second Language Acquisition and Subsequent or Successive Bilinguals.
These categorizations are important for researchers to make sure to compare children who were exposed to similar situations when studying the way children use their multiple languages. Children who use several languages from very early on approach additional languages in a different way. They have a broader variety of language skills to build on than those who were exposed to one language only.
On a little side note: the term bilingual can be used for people using two or more languages to some extent, on a regular basis. I personally prefer using the term multilingual for people who use more than two languages to some extent and on a regular basis, because I emphasize that they use them to communicate in social situations, when speaking with the family (micro society) and the broader community (meso and macro society).
As a multilingual, I miss an equivalent for multilinguals like me, my children and my clients, who start with 2 or more languages very early on and add new ones across the lifespan. They could be simultaneous multilinguals as multilingual first language acquisition takes place (to transform or adapt Annick De Houwer's term to the multilingual context). So, when considering the children, they would be Early Simultaneous Multilinguals.
You may wonder why we would need this term. I have seen how parents of early simultaneous multilinguals were asked to indicate their first two languages, their most dominant language (singular!) when applying for schools. Most of them had two or more languages that were dominant in their life and they used on a regular basis. By reducing the options to two languages for 3 to 6 year old children who start preschool and school, in my opinion and experience, we limit the possibilities of these children. When teachers do not know or do not acknowledge the full potential, the repertoire these children already have when they enter the school system, we intrinsically deprive them from improving their language skills and expect them to narrow their focus on the school language only. Furthermore, teachers need to know how multilingual children learn additional languages, how they connect them to those they already know and how they manage to transfer the skills from one language to the other!
Multilinguals who start school, have a great advantage when adding a new language as they can build on a broader foundation – think about the vocabulary in each language, the great variety of sounds they can articulate, the many ways they use intonations across their languages, and what they figured out about the patterns of the respective grammar (how words are formed (ex. how to form a plural, adjust the verb to the subject etc.) how sentences are formed etc.!
I like to consider being or becoming multilinguals – and actually also staying (!) multilinguals across the lifespan – like a multilingual continuum of increasing complexity.
In fact, multilinguals for whom using multiple languages is the norm, and who grow up in an environment that supports their languages in a healthy and nurturing way, will improve their language skills and add more languages to their repertoire.
When trying to use similar terms for older multilinguals, using the term of "subsequent" or "successive" multilinguals doesn't seem adequate exactly for the reasons just mentioned: we benefit from a broader foundation of languages but also because our way of learning, approaching new, additional languages is different from those who were exposed to only one language earlier. It is more natural, spontaneous, and similar to how we acquired the first languages. We intrinsically compare the new language to the ones we know, thanks to our metalinguistic awareness that we develop very early on, we compare possible patterns and proceed by trial and error. The most important reason for multilinguals to keep nurturing their languages across all phases of life is that they can benefit from the cognitive advantage, when we keep on using and learning them. As languages changes constantly, we can never finish learning a language – I personally find the German term auslernen more accurate.
As I am suggesting some new terms to use with regards to multilinguals, I am curious to know what you think. I am happy to continue the conversation in the comments.
If you are multilingual yourself: are you currently learning a new language, or what are you doing to nurture your languages throughout the years? I'd love to know!
De Houwer, Annick, 2009, Bilingual First Language Acquisition, Multilingual Matters.
You can watch my video about this topic here: