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First Language Acquisition in a Multilingual Family Research Paper

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Updated: May 13th, 2022


Language is an essential part of every person’s life because with the help of language people express their emotions, communicate with each other, and, what is the most important, learn. However, nobody is born talking and all the babies have to learn a definite language starting from their birth: “They need sounds and words, meanings and constructions. They need to know what to use where and when, how to integrate language with other modes of communication, how to make themselves understood and how to understand others” (Clark 1). In the course of the acquisition of the first language, children go through several stages at which they learn to distinguish sounds, to shape them into words, to search for the objects that match these words, etc. However, it is not always that going through all these stages is successful. Quite often children need help with moving from stage to stage or with acquiring skills necessary at each of the stages. This especially concerns bilingual and trilingual families where the parents often have to resort to additional methods of teaching to help their child learn the language (or languages) (Cenoz, Genessee, and International Association for the Study of Child Language 228). These methods often require certain analysis before their implementation. In general, trilingual families are the most contributive into research when it comes to studying language phenomena because “the overlapping nature of the languages combined with the changing order of first through to third language gives an insight into how acquisition works and how children evolve linguistically” (Barron-Hauwaert 155). The family under consideration is trilingual and it is expected that the research carried out within it will greatly contribute into the study of language phenomena.

The participant of the research is M who comes from Chicago, Illinois. The boy is 3.5 years old and he experiences certain problems with the first language acquisition. The child is growing in a multilingual family and is currently exposed to three major languages in his household. All the adults in his family speak these three languages; however, M speaks only English, though he understands two other languages as well. In addition, M has been noticed to overextend the words in spontaneous speech. Apart from this, the child is unable to produce the names of certain animals. The research presented in this paper is going to explore these problems in more detail and provide explanations to why these problems may be taking place.

Purpose of the Research and Hypotheses

The purpose of this research is to explore the subject of the first language acquisition and to find the answers to the following research questions:

  1. What is the meaning of some children overextending their words during the spontaneous speech?
  2. Why some of the children are not able to produce the names of certain animals?
  3. Why does M choose to communicate in English, while he comprehends all the three languages spoken in his household?

Addressing the first question requires certain theoretical background and analysis of the works of other researchers dedicated to this topic. There is an assumption that, in case with M, overextension takes place because he grows in a multilingual family. As far as the second question is concerned, there are two main hypotheses with regards to it. Number one hypothesis is that M might be unable to understand the words; hence is his inability to name the animals. Number two hypothesis is that M does not make any connection between the words and their meaning, the connection which helps to correctly identify the animals. And, finally, addressing the third research question will consist in analyzing the theoretical material on why some bilingual and multilingual children may choose to speak a particular language, rather than both or more, spoken in his/her family.

Research Methodology

The research is going to involve certain educational process during which M will approve or disprove the research hypotheses and learn simultaneously. Question/answer method will be used to obtain the data for analysis. This method is the most reliable for this research because it almost completely minimizes bias. The matter is that the information is obtained directly from the participant; besides, it is carefully recorded, which makes it possible to preserve not only information, but the tone and emotions with which a child is speaking. The main benefit of the question/answer method is that a child is not overwhelmed with information and has a restricted scope of answers. This is quite convenient when working with children whose communication skills are not developed enough. Thus, the method of data collection will involve the following steps:

  • Collecting a series of pictures on four similar topics: domestic cats, large felines, non-felines which look similar to cats;
  • Presenting to M the animals belonging to each of the groups: tabby cats, tuxedo cats, and black cats; tiger, lion, and leopard; guinea pig, rabbit, and baby seal; elephant, zebra, and snake;
  • Shuffling the pictures around and showing M one picture at a time asking him to identify each animal;
  • Laying the pictures in accidental order and asking M to point at a particular animal

Each of the child’s responses will be recorded and then analyzed. The results will show how truthful the assumptions of the research were and which of the hypothesis is approved.


Overextension of Words

The first words which a child says often depend on how frequently these words are used by family members. A number of other words are also learned from the environment and, most often, from parents. In case when a child cannot find an appropriate word among those heard from the family members, he/she tends to overextend this word. For instance, a child can call any of the animals that have four legs a dog for the reason that he/she is guided by limited characteristics of this animal. There are several ideas why the phenomenon of overextension occurs:

One possibility is that they [children] do not yet distinguish among the mammal types they are referring to this way. However, since one-year-olds can readily distinguish cats from dogs, for example, and both from other animal types, this explanation seems implausible. Another possibility is that children overextend words for communicative reasons. They may well know that their word is not the right one, but they don’t have or can’t readily access the right word, so they make do with a term close by. (Clark 88)

Overextensions are the most typical for children younger than 3. There is no definite period of time during which overextensions last; sometimes they take no longer than a day, while in other cases they last for weeks or months. It is worth mentioning that overextension lasts longer in case with bilingual or multilingual children, while the monolingual ones pass this period quite quickly (Wei 312). As a rule, the child’s vocabulary has to develop well enough for the overextensions to disappear from the child’s speech. There are several characteristics on which overextensions may be created. One of the most widespread is shape. The following table presents several examples of overextensions based on shape:

Table 1: Overextensions Based on Shape

Words (CDS) First referent Domain of overextensions
mooi moon (Eng.) > cakes > round marks on windows > writing on windows and in books > round shapes in books > tooling on leather book covers > round postmarks > letter O
ticktock watch (Eng.) > clock > all clocks and watches > gas meter > fire hose on spool > bath scale with round dial
baw ball (Eng.) > apples > grapes > eggs > squash > bell clapper > anything round
tee stick (Eng.) > cane > umbrella > ruler > board of wood > all sticklike objects
mum horse (Eng.) > cow > calf > pig > moose > all 4-legged animals

(Clark 89)

The table shows that mostly the round shape of an object (or a part of it) serves as a distinguishing characteristic of an object for a child who overextends words. In case with M, this overextension concerns the animals which the boy cannot identify correctly. Similarly to the “dog” example already mentioned, the boy refers all the animals to cats (because they all have four legs). The research methodology has been developed on the basis of this overextension and the exercises which M has to do consist in distinguishing between different types of cats, as well as between cat-like animals and those that absolutely do not look like cats. Such an experiment has two main purposes. First of all, it will help to find out why M is unable to distinguish between different animals. And, secondly, it will show whether M’s overextension has any relation to his being multilingual. There is a suggestion, that, due to being trilingual, M may confuse the names of animals; another suggestion is that he might have heard and memorized the name of a definite animal in one of the three languages he knows (not in English) and tries to recollect an English word for it, but, since he fails, he names the one that is on his mind at the moment.

Apart from shape, overextension can also be based on movement, size, and texture. These characteristics will help to identify where M’s problem with naming animals lies. For instance, if his overextension is based on shape, he will not differentiate between a domestic cat, an elephant, and a snake. If the problem consists in differentiating between textures, this will be discovered when comparing regular cats, rabbits, and baby seals with lions and elephants. Finally, if M’s overextension is based on size, he will be unable to differentiate between an elephant and a domestic cat, between a snake and a zebra, and between the like combinations of animals. Addressing this problem will be possible at the third stage of the experiment when M will be asked to identify an animal in one of the pictures offered to him.

And, lastly, overextension of words may be based on how difficult it is for a child to pronounce a definite word (or a name of the animal in this case):

Faced with words that are impossible to articulate in the language of the exchange, the children could also have chosen silence. By choosing to say the word that they cannot pronounce, the children are making a decision based on what is pronounceable versus unpronounceable, among alternatives that serve the same pragmatic purpose in the two languages. (Cruz-Ferreira 25)

This idea presupposes that children overextend words until they learn to properly pronounce them. This is the same as in case with drinking from the glass; quite often, children imitate drinking because they are unable to sip the water from the glass. Similarly, by overextending the names of the animals, M may identify only superficial characteristics of an animal because calling each of the animals having four legs “kitty” is more convenient than pronouncing “elephant”, “rabbit”, or “leopard”. The same is true if M differentiates the animals on the basis of texture. Most of the animals in the list have fur, just like cats, which is enough for referring them to cats. Thus, the experiment will show what M’s overextension of words is based on and whether the exercise he is going to do will be of any help for fighting with his overextending words.

Choosing a Particular Language

In bilingual and multilingual families it is often the case that children choose a particular language to speak, even though some members of the family may speak other languages as well. According to Cenoz et al (233), this is connected with the fact that children who are older than 2 years are able to distinguish between different language systems and can associate these systems with their family members (mostly parents). This is why the child’s choosing a particular language may depend on how often this language is used by other family members. This idea is also supported by Baker and Sienkewicz (44) who mention that the child usually chooses the language which is the most frequently used by his/her parents for communication (either with each other or with the child). Applying this information to M’s case, it is necessary to remind that the child is exposed to three different languages. However, there are no data on how often these languages are used in the family. It is more likely, that M chose English because one of his parents uses namely English when interacting with him. Besides, much is dependent on the language spoken in the community. Though three languages are spoken in M’s neighborhood, English is still the first language in Chicago. This is why the child hears it everywhere, including the kindergarten where all other children and educators speak English.

Children growing in multilingual families do not manage to learn all the languages at once. Most of them acquire two, three, or more languages only when at school. When exploring language acquisition of such children, Barnes noticed “a trend towards very young children using the mother’s language and displaying stages of monolingual initial language use, bilingual language use at pre-school age (often the father’s language) with full trilingualism (with the community language) developing at school age” (30).This creates an idea that the order in which languages are acquired by a trilingual child depends on which language a particular family member speaks. Thus, what matters, is not only which language the child is exposed to most often, but who exactly speaks this language. M’s choosing namely English for communication may be predetermined by the fact that his mother speaks English more often than other members of the family.

Results & Findings

M was quite willing to participate in the experiment and showed interest in the pictures as soon as they were presented to him. Stage by stage, the child was exhibiting his abilities to memorize and comprehend the information. At the first stage, during the presentation of the pictures of different animals and my naming each of them, M was trying to repeat each name. He easily repeated “cat”, “lion”, “baby” and “seal” (separately), and “snake”, while longer words and those which had a sound [r] caused certain difficulties for him to pronounce. To improve the results, the pictures were shown to M the second time. Again, the boy was trying to repeat the names of the animals, but failed to do this is cases with “rabbit”, “zebra”, “guinea pig”, and “leopard”. This suggests an idea that M may be avoiding these names because it is difficult for him to pronounce them. This is normal at M’s age because children acquire the components of their language by the time they are three or four years (Berko Gleason and Berstein Ratner 1); in M’s case, this period may take longer time because he has more than one language to learn. Perhaps, in several months overextension (if the reason is identified correctly) will disappear because the boy’s speaking skills will improve.

At the second stage, M was asked to identify separate animals. Every time a card with an animal was shown to him, M seemed to analyze it. First, he looked at each picture for some time as if comparing it with what he has been shown and told before. This means that the boy understands the meaning of the words which he hears, which disproves number one hypothesis. Among the pictures which have been shown, the boy identified mostly domestic cats and large felines, referring to all of them as “kittens”. When looking at the pictures, M identified all the domestic cats, a tiger, a lion, a leopard, and a baby seal as “kittens”. It interesting that when seeing a picture of a rabbit, the boy paused for some time and then uttered “not kitten” (this once again proves that the process of analysis took place; the boy compared the images seen before with his ideas about them). Instead, however, M did not name the rabbit. This could have been caused either by the fact that the word “rabbit” is difficult to pronounce for him, or by the disparity between certain characteristics of a rabbit and a cat (such as longer ears in case with rabbit). In any way, such results show that children are able “to notice certain distinctions in real world events and to pick up (or even invent) corresponding linguistic distinctions in order to communicate about them” (Bruner 38). Thus, the second stage of the experiment has shown that the boy’s overextension is based on shape, though there are still signs that his understanding of differences between four-legged animals is increasing.

At the third stage, the pictures were laid out and the boy was asked to identify separate animals. When hearing the words “lion”, “cat”, “tiger”, “leopard”, and “baby seal”, M pointed at the animals belonging to either domestic cats or large felines. There were several times when he was pointing at the right picture, but there is much likelihood that those times were mere coincidences. Nevertheless, the fact that he referred all the felines to the correct group means that his overextension spreads only on the animals within this group. Here it is also worth mentioning that, when asked to show a baby seal, M pointed at a picture with a regular cat, though before this he looked through the pictures of a tiger and of a lion. This happened again when M heard the word “baby seal” the next time; he pointed at the domestic cat, though of a different color. This testifies to the fact that the boy associates the word “baby” with small size. This finding has two major values. First of all, it suggests an idea that M’s overextension is not based on size (though he calls lion a “kitten”, he still chooses smaller animals when hearing the names of those which he believes to be catlike). Secondly, it means that M makes connection between words and their meaning, which disproves number two hypothesis.

On the whole, the experiment has clarified a number of issues regarding M’s first language acquisition. The most important fact discovered is that M does differentiate between animals; what he confuses are the names of the animals within one group. This was proved not only by his grouping the animals according to definite characteristics, but by his not paying attention to the animals that did not have these characteristics. The boy seemed to ignore snake, elephant, zebra, and guinea pig when looking for pictures of lion, tiger, leopard, cats, and rabbit. He clearly differentiated between a rabbit and a cat and there is no doubt that he considers zebra, guinea pig, snake, and elephant different from “kittens”. The experiment with pictures disproved both the hypotheses. Number one hypotheses was not truthful because M showed understanding of the words he heard not only through his assuming that a baby seal should be small, but also through his producing certain sounds when looking at the pictures (such as growl or hissing when looking at large felines). When shown the pictures of domestic cats, M imitated mewing sometimes; this means that he also differentiates between domestic and wild cats. Lastly, number two hypothesis was also disproved because the boy memorized the words quickly, which means that he understands what he hears and associates the words with certain images. Repeating two stages of the experiment (the first and the third ones) has provided sufficient evidence that the child is progressing and that his overextension (based mostly on shape) is going to pass as soon as his speaking skills improve. Thus, for instance, the boy could not say the word “rabbit” because of the sound [r] which was difficult for him to pronounce; in addition, the words “leopard”, “guinea pig”, and “elephant” also caused complications. This means that, if M’s speaking skills improve, he will be able to name the animals. So far, he uses the words which are the most convenient for him to pronounce.


All children are unique in their development, especially when it comes to acquiring their first language. Learning to speak is difficult for children for a number of details have to be born in mind and much has to be differentiated between. M’s case has shown that overextension or words, which is quite common with children younger than 4, has several explanations. With bilingual or multilingual children, overextension may take place due to the mixture of languages children are exposed to. M seems to have chosen one language (English) to cope with this; one of the main reasons why this language has been chosen is that one of the family members (presumably mother) speaks this language most often. M’s overextension, as a research has shown, is based on shape. As a rule, such kind of overextension of words results in children naming all the animals according to certain characteristics (such as calling “cat” each animal that has four legs and a tail). The overall meaning of overextension of words is that it simplifies the speech and allows using the word that comes to mind first instead of the one which has to be searched for. In general, some children are unable to name animals because they may fail to pronounce their names, especially when these names are long or consists of difficult sounds, such as [r]. Thus, the research has disproved two hypothesis proposed at the beginning of the study and explained the meaning of overextension of words, the inability of some children to name the animals, and a child’s choosing one particular language among those which he/she is exposed to.

Works Cited

Baker, Colin and Sienkewicz, Anne. The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An Introduction for Professionals. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, 2000.

Barnes, Julia D. Early Trilingualism: A Focus on Questions. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, 2006.

Barron-Hauwaert, Suzanne. Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The One-Parent-One-Language Approach. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, 2004.

Berko-Gleason, Jean and Berstein Ratner, Nan. Development of Language. MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2008.

Bruner, Jerome. Child’s Talk. New York: Norton.

Cenoz, Jasone, Genesee, Fred, and International Association for the Study of Child Language. Trends in Bilingual Acquisition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2001.

Clark, Eve V. First Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Cruz-Ferreira, Madalena. Three is a Crowd?: Acquiring Portuguese in a Trilingual Environment. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters, 2006.

Wei, Li. The Bilingualism Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

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