Do Bilingual Children Know Fewer Words Than Monolinguals?

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Linguistic research in young bilingual children has focused on whether multilingual children develop language skills in the same way and at the same speed as monolingual children. Numerous studies in the field have focused on this question by examining different aspects of language, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.

A recent article from Diane Poulin-Dubois, Ellen Bialystok and their colleagues (2012), published in the International Journal of Bilingualism, looks at the area of vocabulary. Research has often shown that bilingual children produce their first word at about the same time as monolingual children, on average. But there is still more to be understood in this area. This study analyzes whether children exposed to two languages on a frequent basis access words in the brain and produce words in the same way as monolingual children. The children in their study were 24 months old at the time of testing.

They tested the children in several different ways. To begin with, they asked parents to document the linguistic environment (how many hours children are exposed to each language). Secondly, the toddlers’ parents were asked to fill out a checklist of what words their child says and understands. In the case of bilingual children, parents filled out two forms (one for each language). Finally, the toddlers were assessed using a computerized task. On a screen, two images were shown while the children heard a word. The toddlers had to touch the image matching the word they heard, in order to assess their word comprehension.

The results of the study showed that compared with monolinguals, the bilinguals have a smaller vocabulary if only one language is taken into account. Bilingual children are able to produce fewer words than their monolinguals counterparts at the same given age. This was not a new finding in the literature. However, when the bilingual’s two languages were taken into account (as they should be in my opinion), the bilinguals’ vocabulary was similar to that of monolinguals.

When it comes to comprehension, the study found no difference in the children’s scores. Both the bilingual and monolingual children accurately picked one image over the other and reacted to the sound cue at a similar speed. Bilingual toddlers therefore show no delay in word comprehension.

Another result of the study is the link between language exposure and word production. The experiments confirmed previous studies (David & Wei, 2008) demonstrating that the more a child is exposed to a language, the bigger their vocabulary in that language. For parents, it reinforces the idea that increasing your child’s exposure time to a language will almost invariably augment their language skills in that language (from a vocabulary point of view, at least).

Finally, Poulin-Dubois and her colleagues analyzed translation equivalents. Translation equivalents, a scientific way of naming synonyms across languages, are words that bilinguals share in both languages. For example, a French-English bilingual child may know the word ‘chien’ (dog in French) AND the word ‘dog’. The child has two words for one concept. The authors revealed that bilingual children with a large number of translation equivalents in their vocabulary responded faster to the computerized test than monolinguals, as they were able to understand and identify the word they heard quicker. This confirms that children who have two words for one concept are able to retrive that word more rapidly in the brain. Previous studies had suggested that having two words for one concept may inhibit a child’s performance. This study proves otherwise.

This study highlights that bilingual children are not delayed in any area of vocabulary when compared to monolingual children. Additionally, it encourages parents to create as rich an experience as possible for their multilingual children.

Poulin-Dubois, D., Bialystok, E., Blaye, A., Polonia, A. & Yott, J. (2012). Lexical access and vocabulary development in very young bilinguals, International Journal of Bilingualism.

David, A.  & Wei, L. (2008). Individual Differences in the Lexical Development of French-English Bilingual Children, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11, 5.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

11 COMMENTS

  1. An article on linguistics would be easier to take seriously if it did not contain a grammatical error in the title. Should be “fewer” works, not “less”. Argh.

  2. A very good article on an important subject. Even monolingual people have different vocabularies depending on the experiences they have, their hobbies, their profession, etc. Similarly, bilingual children may learn new words in their two vocabularies at different times, but if the words are needed in both languages, they will learn them. We for example noticed that our oldest child knew quite a bit about gardening in French, having helped out her grandpa in France over the summer holidays. As our own garden is quite the jungle she obviously did not have the same experience at home, hence the temporary lack of vocabulary in Finnish (nothing some good dinner-table conversation can’t fix).

    I agree that sufficient exposure to both languages (especially to the minority language) helps. Promoting biliteracy and reading to children in both (or more) languages, is also a great way to fill in any gaps in vocabulary.

  3. I am so glad I came across this article. Our kids are German – English bilingual, we live in the U.S.. The oldest is in Kindergarten and just got her IOWA test results back. She did very well over all but it was interesting to note that her vocabulary skills were well below all of her other skills. I was wondering if that is something common to bilingual kids? And I guess the answer is yes …

  4. I just wanted to add that recent research by myself and colleagues in the US has found that young bilinguals actually are about 4 months AHEAD of monolinguals when you look at the number of words they understand. And for the number of words they speak we didn’t find any statistical differences. You’ll find the link to the original article in the ‘In the spotlight’ rubric on the ERBIS website (which is up and running but far from complete yet, sorry; http://www.erbis.org).

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