Research Topic

Bilingual Language Development: The Role of Dominance

About this Research Topic

It has long been established that bilingual speakers rarely show the same level of proficiency in both their languages, instead, one of their languages may be dominant over the other. However, it is difficult to define and measure language dominance since factors such as usage, preference, proficiency or competence, and language context in terms of language environment play a role. Adding to the problem is the fact that dominance can shift several times during the lifespan: in early years, bilinguals can be more proficient in their heritage language (language spoken at home with parents), at school age the environmental language can become dominant or, when children return to the home country of their parents, the former heritage language becomes the environmental language and may regain its early dominance.

Even though evidence for the above observations has accumulated in recent years, a question of considerable theoretical impact remains unresolved: Does dominance have any influence on the bilingual speaker’s linguistic competence and if yes, in which way? In order to answer this question, the following issues have to be resolved: Is there a 1:1 relation between proficiency and competence or, in other words, is a bilingual speaker necessarily less competent in his/her weaker language? The latter ties in with questions about language attrition and/or incomplete acquisition, namely whether dominance automatically leads to native like competence in the stronger and induces attrition or incomplete acquisition in the weaker language. From the developmental perspective, it can be asked in particular whether dominance leads to acceleration in the acquisition of the stronger language and delay in the acquisition of the weaker language in early years and whether such delays may culminate in incomplete acquisition or even language attrition. A further question is how age of initial exposure or age at dominance shift influence knowledge of dominant, weaker and attrited languages. Moreover, it remains open how the intricate relation between dominance and attrition as a product of changing exposure patterns could be investigated. For instance, recent studies have shown that attrition taking place early in life leads to competence deficits, whereas grammatical knowledge remains stable in late attrition - although it can be temporarily disguised by specific patterns of bilingual processing.

Other questions remaining open are questions about the impact of dominance on cross-linguistic influence (CLI) and its direction. Thus, it is still unresolved whether CLI is more likely to occur in unbalanced speakers. Similar questions arise with respect to the influence of language dominance on the frequency and direction of code-switching.

We encourage research with theoretical impact (proficiency or competence? direction of language transfer?), research on methodology, processing research with on-line methods, etc.
We intend to cover the following topics:
1) Does language dominance influence only language processing or is language competence equally concerned?
2) Which areas of language are most concerned by dominance or attrition?
3) What is the role of age of L2 acquisition?
4) What is the role of age at dominance shift?
5) What is the role of reading and writing skills in an attrition scenario?
6) Is dominance a factor in language transfer?
7) Is dominance a factor for code-switching?


Keywords: bilingualism, language acquisition, dominance, L1 attrition, incomplete acquisition


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

It has long been established that bilingual speakers rarely show the same level of proficiency in both their languages, instead, one of their languages may be dominant over the other. However, it is difficult to define and measure language dominance since factors such as usage, preference, proficiency or competence, and language context in terms of language environment play a role. Adding to the problem is the fact that dominance can shift several times during the lifespan: in early years, bilinguals can be more proficient in their heritage language (language spoken at home with parents), at school age the environmental language can become dominant or, when children return to the home country of their parents, the former heritage language becomes the environmental language and may regain its early dominance.

Even though evidence for the above observations has accumulated in recent years, a question of considerable theoretical impact remains unresolved: Does dominance have any influence on the bilingual speaker’s linguistic competence and if yes, in which way? In order to answer this question, the following issues have to be resolved: Is there a 1:1 relation between proficiency and competence or, in other words, is a bilingual speaker necessarily less competent in his/her weaker language? The latter ties in with questions about language attrition and/or incomplete acquisition, namely whether dominance automatically leads to native like competence in the stronger and induces attrition or incomplete acquisition in the weaker language. From the developmental perspective, it can be asked in particular whether dominance leads to acceleration in the acquisition of the stronger language and delay in the acquisition of the weaker language in early years and whether such delays may culminate in incomplete acquisition or even language attrition. A further question is how age of initial exposure or age at dominance shift influence knowledge of dominant, weaker and attrited languages. Moreover, it remains open how the intricate relation between dominance and attrition as a product of changing exposure patterns could be investigated. For instance, recent studies have shown that attrition taking place early in life leads to competence deficits, whereas grammatical knowledge remains stable in late attrition - although it can be temporarily disguised by specific patterns of bilingual processing.

Other questions remaining open are questions about the impact of dominance on cross-linguistic influence (CLI) and its direction. Thus, it is still unresolved whether CLI is more likely to occur in unbalanced speakers. Similar questions arise with respect to the influence of language dominance on the frequency and direction of code-switching.

We encourage research with theoretical impact (proficiency or competence? direction of language transfer?), research on methodology, processing research with on-line methods, etc.
We intend to cover the following topics:
1) Does language dominance influence only language processing or is language competence equally concerned?
2) Which areas of language are most concerned by dominance or attrition?
3) What is the role of age of L2 acquisition?
4) What is the role of age at dominance shift?
5) What is the role of reading and writing skills in an attrition scenario?
6) Is dominance a factor in language transfer?
7) Is dominance a factor for code-switching?


Keywords: bilingualism, language acquisition, dominance, L1 attrition, incomplete acquisition


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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27 March 2018 Manuscript

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Submission Deadlines

27 March 2018 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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