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The receptive–expressive gap in the vocabulary of young second-language learners: Robustness and possible mechanisms*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2011

School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, The University of Memphis
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, The University of Memphis
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, The University of Memphis
Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Research, The University of Memphis
Address for correspondence: Todd A. Gibson, 1 University Station A 1100, Austin, TX 78712,


Adults and children learning a second language show difficulty accessing expressive vocabulary that appears accessible receptively in their first language (L1). We call this discrepancy the receptive–expressive gap. Kindergarten Spanish (L1) – English (L2) sequential bilinguals were given standardized tests of receptive and expressive vocabulary in both Spanish and English. We found a small receptive–expressive gap in English but a large receptive–expressive gap in Spanish. We categorized children as having had high or low levels of English exposure based on demographic variables and found that the receptive–expressive gap persisted across both levels of English exposure. Regression analyses revealed that variables predicting both receptive and expressive vocabulary scores failed to predict the receptive–expressive gap. The results suggest that the onset of the receptive–expressive gap in L1 may have been abrupt. We discuss possible mechanisms underlying the phenomenon.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Institue of Child Health & Human Development (R01 HD046947 to D. Kimbrough Oller, Principal Investigator), and by the Plough Foundation to D. Kimbrough Oller. Thanks to the anonymous reviewers who gave us useful feedback on an earlier version.


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