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Bilingual language experience as a multidimensional spectrum: Associations with objective and subjective language proficiency

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2020

Jason W. Gullifer
McGill University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Shanna Kousaie
University of Ottawa and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Annie C. Gilbert
McGill University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Angela Grant
Missouri Western State University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Nathalie Giroud
University of Zurich and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Kristina Coulter
Concordia University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Denise Klein
McGill University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Shari Baum
McGill University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Natalie Phillips
Concordia University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
Debra Titone*
McGill University and Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Despite the multifactorial space of language experience in which people continuously vary, bilinguals are often dichotomized into ostensibly homogeneous groups. The timing of language exposure (age of acquisition) to a second language (L2) is one well-studied construct that is known to impact language processing, cognitive processing, and brain organization, but recent work shows that current language exposure is also a crucial determinant in these domains. Critically, many indices of bilingual experience are inherently subjective and based on self-report questionnaires. Such measures have been criticized in favor of objective measures of language ability (e.g., naming ability or verbal fluency). Here, we estimate the bilingual experience jointly as a function of multiple continuous aspects of experience, including the timing of language exposure, the amount of L2 exposure across communicative contexts, and language entropy (a flexible measure of language balance) across communicative contexts. The results suggest that current language exposure exhibits distinct but interrelated patterns depending on the socio-experiential context of language usage. They also suggest that, counterintuitively, our sample more accurately self-assesses L2 proficiency than native language proficiency. A precise quantification of the multidimensional nature of bilingualism will enhance the ability of future research to assess language processing, acquisition, and control.

Original Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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