Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development*


How does age of first bilingual language exposure affect reading development in children learning to read in both of their languages? Is there a reading advantage for monolingual English children who are educated in bilingual schools? We studied children (grades 2–3, ages 7–9) in bilingual Spanish–English schools who were either from Spanish-speaking homes (new to English) or English-speaking homes (new to Spanish), as compared with English-speaking children in monolingual English schools. An early age of first bilingual language exposure had a positive effect on reading, phonological awareness, and language competence in both languages: early bilinguals (age of first exposure 0–3 years) outperformed other bilingual groups (age of first exposure 3–6 years). Remarkably, schooling in two languages afforded children from monolingual English homes an advantage in phoneme awareness skills. Early bilingual exposure is best for dual language reading development, and it may afford such a powerful positive impact on reading and language development that it may possibly ameliorate the negative effect of low SES on literacy. Further, age of first bilingual exposure provides a new tool for evaluating whether a young bilingual has a reading problem versus whether he or she is a typically-developing dual-language learner.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Laura-Ann Petitto, University of Toronto Scarborough, Department of Psychology, 1265 Military Trail, Toronto, ON, MIC
Hide All

We extend our warm thanks to the members of the Petitto Lab, particularly Matthew Dubins, Katherine White, Elizabeth Norton and Paola Peacock-Villada, as well as the schools and the families who participated in this study. We are grateful to the three anonymous reviewers and the editor, Dr. Ping Li, for all their insightful comments that helped us improve our paper. Funding was provided by grants to L. A. Petitto from the National Institute of Health (R01HD045822-01A2 “Neuroimaging and behavioral studies of bilingual reading”) and (R21 HD 050558-02 Infants' Neural Basis for Language Using New Near Infrared Spectroscopy) and The Spencer Foundation. For more information on related research see and

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

E. Bialystok , G. Luk & E. Kwan (2005). Bilingualism, biliteracy, and learning to read: Interactions among languages and writing systems. Scientific Studies of Reading, 9 (1), 4361.

E. Bialystok , T. Shenfield & J. Codd (2000). Languages, scripts, and the environment: Factors in developing concepts of print. Developmental Psychology, 36 (1), 6676.

D. Birdsong & M. Molis (2001). On the evidence for maturational constraints in second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 44 (2), 235249.

L. Bloom (1975). Structure and variation in child language. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 40 (2), 197.

R. Brown (1973). A first language: The early stages. Oxford: Harvard University Press.

D. J. Bruce (1964). The analysis of word sounds by young children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 34 (2), 158170.

S. J. Caldas & C. I. Bankston (1997). Effect of school population socioeconomic status on individual academic achievement. The Journal of Educational Research, 90, 269277.

A. J. Capute , F. B. Palmer , B. K. Shapiro , R. C. Wachtel , S. Schmidt & A. Ross (1986). Clinical linguistic and auditory milestone scale: Prediction of cognition in infancy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 28 (6), 762771.

H. W. Catts , M. E. Fey , X. Zhang & J. B. Tomblin (2001). Estimating risk for future reading difficulties in kindergarten children: A research-based model and its clinical implications. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 32, 3850.

M. W. L. Chee , C. S. Soon & H. L. Lee (2001). Relative language proficiency modulates BOLD signal change when bilinguals perform semantic judgments. NeuroImage, 13 (6), 11551163.

M. K. Colvin , K. Dunbar & J. Grafman (2001). The effects of frontal lobe lesions on goal achievement in the water jug task. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 13 (8), 11291147.

H. Damasio , T. Grabowski , R. Frank , A. M. Galaburda & A. R. Damasio (1994). The return of Phineas Gage: Clues about the brain from the skull of a famous patient. Science, 264 (5162), 11021105.

M. Deuchar & S. Quay (1999). Language choice in the earliest utterances: A case study with methodological implications. Journal of Child Language, 26 (2), 461475.

M. Droop & L. Verhoeven (2003). Language proficiency and reading ability in first- and second-language learners. Reading Research Quarterly, 38 (1), 78103.

H. C. Dulay & M. K. Burt (1974). Natural sequences in child second language acquisition. Language Learning, 24 (1), 3753.

A. Y. Durgunoglu , W. E. Nagy & B. J. Hancin-Bhatt (1993). Cross-language transfer of phonological awareness. Journal of Educational Psychology, 85 (3), 453465.

L. Engen & T. Hoien (2002). Phonological skills and reading comprehension. Reading and Writing, 15 (7–8), 613631.

Z. Eviatar & R. Ibrahim (2000). Bilingual is as bilingual does: Metalinguistic abilities of Arabic-speaking children. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21, 451471.

J. E. Flege , I. R. A. MacKay & D. Meador (1999). Native Italian speakers' perception and production of English vowels. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 106 (5), 29732987.

J. E. Flege , M. J. Munro & I. R. A. MacKay (1995). Factors affecting strength of perceived foreign accent in a second language. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 97 (5), 31253134.

J. E. Flege , G. H. Yeni-Komshian & S. Liu (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 41 (1), 78104.

A. D. Friederici , K. Steinhauer & E. Pfiefer (2002). Brain signatures of artificial language processing: Evidence challenging the critical period hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99 (8), 529534.

J. Frost , S. Madsbjerg , J. Niedersoe , A. K. Olofsson & P. M. I. Sörensen (2005). Semantic and phonological skills in predicting reading development: From 3–16 years of age. Dyslexia: An International Journal of Research & Practice, 11 (2), 7992.

N. Gaab , P. Tallal , H. Kim , K. Lakshminarayanan , J. J. Archie , G. H. Glover & J. D. Gabrieli (2005). Neural correlates of rapid spectrotemporal processing in musicians and nonmusicians. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060, 8288.

F. Genesee & P. Gándara (1999). Bilingual education programs: A cross-national perspective. Journal of Social Issues, 55 (4), 665685.

S. Glennen (2002). Language development and delay in internationally adopted infants and toddlers: A review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 11 (4), 333339.

U. Goswami (2004). Neuroscience and education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74 (1), 114.

K. Hakuta , E. Bialystok & E. Wiley (2003). Critical evidence: A test of the critical-period hypothesis for second-language acquisition. Psychological Science, 14 (1), 3138.

K. Hakuta & E. E. Garcia (1989). Bilingualism and education. American Psychologist, 44 (2), 374379.

T. Harris , K. Wexler & P. Holcomb (2000). An ERP investigation of binding and coreference. Brain and Language, 75 (3), 313346.

A. Holm & B. Dodd (2001). Comparison of cross-language generalization following speech therapy. Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, 53 (3), 166172.

S. Holowka , F. Brosseau-Lapré & L. A. Petitto (2002). Semantic and conceptual knowledge underlying bilingual babies' first signs and words. Language Learning, 52 (2), 205262.

J. S. Johnson & E. L. Newport (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology, 21 (1), 6099.

I. Kovelman , S. A. Baker & L. A. Petitto (2008). Bilingual and monolingual brains compared: An fMRI investigation of syntactic processing and a possible “neural signature” of bilingualism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20 (1), 153–169.

J. M. Leafstedt & M. M. Gerber (2005). Crossover of phonological processing skills: A study of Spanish-speaking students in two instructional settings. Remedial and Special Education, 26 (4), 226235.

M. G. Lopez & A. Tashakkori (2004). Effects of a two-way bilingual program on the literacy development of students in kindergarten and first grade. Bilingual Research Journal, 28 (1), 19–34.

R. I. Mayberry & E. B. Eichen (1991). The long-lasting advantage of learning sign language in childhood: Another look at the critical period for language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 30 (4), 486512.

R. I. Mayberry & S. D. Fischer (1989). Looking through phonological shape to lexical meaning: The bottleneck of non-native sign language processing. Memory & Cognition, 17 (6), 740754.

J. L. McDonald (2000). Grammaticality judgments in a second language: Influences of age of acquisition and native language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21 (3), 395423.

J. Mills (2001). Being bilingual: Perspectives of third generation Asian children on language, culture and identity. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 4 (6), 383402.

V. Muter & K. Diethelm (2001). The contribution of phonological skills and letter knowledge to early reading development in a multilingual population. Language Learning, 51 (2), 187219.

K. Nelson (1973). Structure and strategy in learning to talk. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 38 (1–2), 1136.

H. J. Neville , S. A. Coffey , D. S. Lawson , A. Fischer , K. Emmorey & U. Bellugi (1997). Neural systems mediating American Sign Language: Effects of sensory experience and age of acquisition. Brain and Language, 57 (3), 285308.

E. L. Newport (1990). Maturational constraints on language learning. Cognitive Science, 14 (1), 1128.

T. Ohnishi , H. Matsuda , T. Asada , M. Aruga , M. Hirakata , M. Nishikawa , A. Katoh & E. Imabayashi (2001). Functional anatomy of musical perception in musicians. Cerebral Cortex, 11 (8), 754760.

J. Paradis (2005). Grammatical morphology in children learning English as a second language: Implications of similarities with Specific Language Impairment. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in the Schools, 36 (3), 172187.

B. Z. Pearson , S. C. Fernandez & D. K. Oller (1993). Lexical development in bilingual infants and toddlers: Comparison to monolingual norms. Language Learning: A Journal of Applied Linguistics, 43, 93120.

M. Pena , A. Maki , D. Kovacic , G. Dehaene-Lambertz , H. Koizumi , F. Bouquet & J. Mehler (2003). Sounds and silence: An optical topography study of language recognition at birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100 (20), 1170211705.

D. Perani , J. Abutalebi , E. Paulesu , S. Brambati , P. Scifo & S. F. Cappa (2003). The role of age of acquisition and language usage in early, high-proficient bilinguals: An fMRI study during verbal fluency. Human Brain Mapping, 19 (3), 170182.

K. M. Petersson , A. Reis , S. Askelof , A. Castro-Caldas & M. Ingvar (2000). Language processing modulated by literacy: A network analysis of verbal repetition in literate and illiterate subjects. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12 (3), 364382.

L. A. Petitto (1987). On the autonomy of language and gesture: Evidence from the acquisition of personal pronouns in American Sign Language. Cognition, 27 (1), 152.

L. A. Petitto & S. Holowka (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and a spoken language. Journal of Sign Language Studies, 3 (1), 433.

L. A. Petitto , R. J. Zatorre , K. Gauna , E. J. Nikelski , D. Dostie & A. C. Evans (2000). Speech-like cerebral activity in profoundly deaf people processing signed languages: Implications for the neural basis of human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (25), 1396113966.

D. Poeppel & K. Wexler (1993). The full competence hypothesis of clause structure in early German. Language, 69 (1), 133.

C. P. Proctor , M. Carlo , D. August & C. Snow (2005). Native Spanish-speaking children reading in English: Toward a model of comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97 (2), 246256.

D. L. Rubin & L. J. Turner (1989). Linguistic awareness skills in grade one children in a French immersion setting. Reading and Writing, 1, 7386.

L. D. Sanders , H. J. Neville & M. G. Woldorff (2002). Speech segmentation of native and non-native speakers: The use of lexical, syntactic, and stress-pattern cues. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45 (3), 519530.

S. J. Shin & L. Milroy (1999). Bilingual language acquisition by Korean schoolchildren in New York City. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2 (2), 147167.

C. Snow & M. Hoefnagel-Hoehle (1978). The critical period for language acquisition: Evidence from second language learning. Child Development, 49, 11141128.

E. Temple , G. K. Deutsch , R. A. Poldrack , S. L. Miller , P. Tallal , M. M. Merzenich & J. D. E. Gabrieli (2003). Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioral remediation: Evidence from functional MRI. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100 (5), 28602865.

I. Thompson (1991). Foreign accents revisited: The English pronunciation of Russian immigrants. Language Learning, 41, 177204.

R van Steensel . (2006). Relations between socio-cultural factors, the home literacy environment and children's literacy development in the first years of primary education. Journal of Research in Reading, 29 (4), 367382.

L. Verhoeven (2000). Components in early second language reading and spelling. Scientific Studies of Reading, 4 (4), 313330.

C. Weber-Fox & H. J. Neville (2001). Sensitive periods differentiate processing of open- and closed-class words: An ERP study of bilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44 (6), 13381353.

J. F. Werker & R. C. Tees (1992). The organization and reorganization of human speech perception. Annual Reviews in Neuroscience, 15, 377402.

L. White & F. Genesee (1996). How native is near-native? The issue of ultimate attainment in adult second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 12, 238265.

C. D. Wolfe & M. A. Bell (2004). Working memory and inhibitory control in early childhood: Contributions from physiology, temperament, and language. Developmental Psychobiology, 44, 6883.

M. Wolf & T. Katzir-Cohen (2001). Reading fluency and its intervention. Scientific Studies of Reading, 5 (3), 211239.

H. K. Yopp (1995). A test for assessing phonemic awareness in young children. The Reading Teacher, 49, 2029.

J. C. Ziegler & U. Goswami (2005). Reading acquisition, developmental dyslexia, and skilled reading across languages: A psycholinguistic grain size theory. Psychological Bulletin, 131 (1), 329.

Recommend this journal

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

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
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: 22
Total number of PDF views: 147 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 547 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 29th May 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.