Bilinguals and their Houses

At Lourdes Martinez Nieto’s dissertation defense, she was asked about how she would respond to someone concluding that bilingualism is “bad” for kids’ language development because they may have a smaller vocabulary in one of their languages compared to a monolingual in that language. She gave a great analogy about language being like a house. Over lunch celebrating her fantastic presentation and successful defense, we (Lourdes, Beatriz Barragan, Laida Restrepo, and I) added to the analogy and wanted to share it here.

Let’s imagine language is like a house. And vocabulary is like furniture. So, you go to visit the monolingual at her house. She has just one room in her house, but that one room is very well-furnished. There are plenty of sofas and armchairs and tables and lamps (i.e. a nice big vocabulary). Now, when you go visit the bilingual at her house, she has the same square footage but her house is divided into two rooms with fewer pieces of furniture in each room. She had to take her sofas and chairs and tables and lamps and divide them between the two rooms so she could have two comfortable living spaces. (Make sure you think of the two rooms as being connected by a big, open hallway because we don’t want to suggest that there isn’t an easy flow of information between the two languages in a bilingual brain).

Now, let’s apply this same analogy to language assessment. One way you could measure the house is how well each room is furnished. It’s somewhat arbitrary to use just that one measure (i.e. vocabulary size) to decide on the quality of one’s house (i.e. language ability), but it could be done. If you used just that measure, the monolingual has a better house because her single room has more furniture. But by doing that, you completely ignore that the bilingual has two different rooms where she can comfortably entertain guests and has more flexibility about which room she uses for different activities. A bilingual can communicate with more people!

As SLPs and language researchers, let’s remember that there are other ways to measure houses than looking at just the furniture in a single room. Using monolingual vocabulary size as the gold standard and then claiming that any child who doesn’t meet that standard is somehow behind or less able just doesn’t make sense. Let’s not forget to take into account how many rooms are in the house.

If you have an idea about how to add to the analogy, comment below!


Ashley Adams, PhD, CCC-SLP

  1. #1 by thomasway on July 12, 2018 - 12:23 am

    Hi Ashley, just out of interest, is there any evidence that bilinguals have a reduced lexicon in each of their languages than monolinguals? I thought (last time I looked, which was a while ago) that the difference was pretty insignificant? Given that, we’d be looking at a house with two well-furnished rooms, wouldn’t we?!

  2. #2 by Keila on July 12, 2018 - 7:57 pm

    To reiterate and expand, so the monolingual individual lives in one room. So all the furniture lives in that one room, but the bilingual person has same and different furniture in the two rooms, which means that some of the child’s words are language specific, but they still count. For example, the bilingual person entertains guests (English speakers) in the living room. But to cook, the bilingual person cooks with Mom/Dad in the kitchen (Spanish/other language). So vocabulary in each language can be determined and facilitated by contexts, people, situations. Some vocabulary lives in a certain room, which is moved over to the next room as needed. Fun topic!

  3. #3 by Becky Green on July 13, 2018 - 10:41 am

    Thomasaway, from what I understand from this article, and from my own experience as a bilingual SLP who works with dual language learners vocabulary size in each language has to do with input/output and the environment. It depends on if they’re hearing the vocabulary in both languages and this often depends on what their home and school environments look like.

  4. #4 by Gayle on July 18, 2018 - 10:14 pm

    Loving this analogy. I wonder if the bilingual likes some of her furniture so much that she decides to buy some identical pieces again for the second room (vocabulary items that exist in both languages). Other pieces of furniture will exist in one room or the other but not both (words that are known in one language but not the other).

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