Skip to main content

Talking with strangers: A study of bilingual children's communicative competence

  • Fred Genesee (a1), Isabelle Boivin (a1) and Elena Nicoladis (a1)

An important component of the communicative competence of proficient bilinguals is the ability to use each of their languages differentially and appropriately according to relevant characteristics of the interlocutors and communicative situations. The research reported here examined the communicative competence of four young children (average age of 2;2, average MLU of 1·56) who were acquiring English and French simultaneously in the home. We observed the ways these children used their languages with monolingual strangers and with their bilingual parents. Specifically, the children's use of English-only, French-only, and mixed (English and French) utterances with the strangers during naturalistic play situations was compared with patterns of use with their parents, also during play sessions. We found that all of the children made some accommodations that could be linked to the monolingualism of the stranger; some of the children were more accommodating than others. The results are discussed in terms of young bilingual children's ability to modify their language on-line in response to the particular language characteristics of their interlocutors.

Corresponding author
Fred Genesee, Division of Education, 2075 Academic Surge, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
Hide All
Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
deHouwer, A. (1990). The acquisition of two languages from birth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gallagher, T. (1981). Contingent query sequences within adult–child discourse. Journal Child Language, 8, 5162.
Genesee, F. (1989). Early bilingual development: One language or two? Journal of Child Language. 16, 161179.
Genesee, F., Nicoladis, E., & Paradis, J. (1995). Language differentiation in early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, 22, 611631.
Goodz, N. (1994). Interactions between parents and children in bilingual families. In Genesee, F. (Ed.), Educating second language children (pp. 6181). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lanza, E. (1992). Can bilingual two-year-olds code-switch? Journal of Child Language, 19, 633658.
Leopold, W. F. (1949). Speech development in a bilingual child (Vol. 3). New York: AMS Press.
Lindholm, K. J., & Padilla, A. M. (1978). Language mixing in bilingual children. Journal Child Language. 5, 327335.
MacWhinney, B., & Snow, C. E. (1990). The child language data exchange system: An update. Journal of Child Language, 17, 457472.
Meisel, J. (1994). Code-switching in young bilingual children: The acquisition of grammatical constraints. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 16, 413440.
Nicoladis, E. (1994). Code-mixing in young bilingual children. Doctoral dissertation, Psychology Department, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.
Nicoladis, E., & Genesee, F. (1995). A longitudinal study of pragmatic differentiation bilingual children. Unpublished manuscript, Psychology Department, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.
Poplack, S. (1980). “Sometimes I'll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en espanol”: Toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics. 18, 581618.
Poplack, S. (1987). Language status and language accommodation along a linguistic border. In Lowenberg, P.H. (Ed.), Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1987 (pp. 90117). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press,
Quay, S. (1992). Explaining language choice in early infant bilingualism. Unpublished paper presented at the Ninth Sociolinguistics Symposium, University of Reading, England. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 365162)
Scherer, N. J., & Coggins, T. E. (1982). Responses to requests in the dialogues of mothers their Stage I children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 25, 5864.
Swain, M., & Wesche, M. (1975). A case study of a bilingual child. Language Sciences, 37, 1722.
Wellman, H. M., & Lempers, J. D. (1977). The naturalistic communicative abilities of two-year-olds. Child Development, 48, 10521057.
Wilcox, M. J., & Webster, E. J. (1980). Early discourse behavior: An analysis of children's responses to listener feedback. Child Development, 51, 11201125.
Wolf, L. (1995). Early lexical development in bilingual children. Unpublished manuscript, Psychology Department, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Applied Psycholinguistics
  • ISSN: 0142-7164
  • EISSN: 1469-1817
  • URL: /core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed