Means, Opportunity and Motive in Sequential Bilingualism

Language seems to be highly accessible now for other cultures and countries to learn.  Aided with and made possible by various factors, language is not anymore confined or exclusive to specific countries and geographical locations.  Acquiring a second language (L2) may begin at any age or life stage – usually during childhood or adolescence, although there are still cases in which L2 learners beyond those age range are still capable of acquiring it too.  Referred to as “sequential bilinguals”, these are the individuals that are well versed in a particular language (native language, beginning at birth) and then successfully acquired a second language at some point of their lives later on.

In her article about sequential bilingualism (“Second Language Acquisition: Success Factors in Sequential Bilingualism”), Kathryn Kohnert defined the term sequential bilingualism and pointed out some of the factors that facilitate and challenge sequential bilingualism.   Kohnert admitted that both L1 and L2 serve complementary and overlapping functions, and that “individuals acquiring L2 continue to need L1”.  Although such contention has been widely established in the past, Kohnert highlighted to us in a clear manner some of the factors that concerns the success of sequential bilingualism, to which she abbreviated as “MOM” – means, opportunity and motive.

Kohnert’s MOM

There’s nothing surprising about MOM; anyone can fairly speculate that acquiring a second language takes a great deal of resources and immersion, opportunities for language application and a desire for communication.  However in her article, Kohnert presents to us that using both L1 and L2 in any context (personal, educational, formal, informal, spoken, written) facilitates meaningful interaction that’s far more important than just understanding a new language on a cognitive, academic level.

MOM refers to “means, opportunity and motive” respectively, and Kohnert asserted that in as much as that these factors contributed to L1 success, they are also essential in the success of sequential bilingualism.  The means-opportunity-motive triad of factors for sequential bilingualism also shows to us that learning a second language is governed by interaction:  interaction of the learner to the resources such as language books, interaction to another person in the need to communicate and lastly, interaction to a greater number of people such as in group discussions.

Kohnert also highlighted the fact that English is a language of high prestige and learning it as a second language is highly valuable.  For a language that’s universal in usage, social, political, and economic aspects have greater chances for improvement if you learn it.  This means that there is a huge opportunity to communicate in diverse social circles; there’s a bigger chance to attain political power if you happen to know English; and economically, knowledge of English in business settings is deemed important especially if you are dealing with foreign investors and such.  All of these are taken into account as to why sequential bilingualism occurs, most preferably, to adults and professionals.

Another important thing that the writer emphasized is that at some point, the power of English as a second language can be so influential that the learner tends to be more proficient in it rather than in his or her native language –

“…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.”


but a combined knowledge and proficiency in both “minority home language” (L1) and in the target language (L2) will increase the “academic aspirations and achievement in immigrant youth” compared to those people who are only proficient of either.


Much of the bulk of the article written by Kathryn Kohnert is all about sequential bilingualism – its definition and the success factors that circle around it.  But the later half of the article is far more interesting as it deals with how language planning should proceed in less than optimal conditions.  This has to do with communication disorders and how it can be addressed.  For a child that has language impairment or any difficulty in learning the first language, would it still be possible for him or her to learn the second language?  According to Kohnert, concerns such as this should be dealt in at least two ways: (1) to consider what is possible, and; (2) to ask what is desirable.  Although it is hard for a child to learn a second language amidst the impairment in learning the first language, Kohnert said that with sufficient opportunities and motivation this is still possible.

Consider for instance, another example as included in the article.

“Tamia, 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. 

What Kohnert want to highlight in this example is that people (children, usually) who have speech and language impairment both in L1 and L2 can still have the chance to learn the language with the aid of various factors – supportive family members, potential opportunities and client motivation.  One should not relegate a case of language impairment as the same condition as the other – everything, including solutions to language and speech disorders, works on a case-to-case basis.  What professionals (and even ordinary people who are living with family members or friends with such disorder or impairment) should do is to facilitate learning conditions that are welcoming and engaging so that the person with a language disability can participate in day to day activities, and that he or she will develop the desire to communicate in either L1 or L2, or even better, both.

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