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Bilingual and monolingual children process pragmatic cues differently when learning novel adjectives

  • AGNES GROBA (a1) (a2), ANNICK DE HOUWER (a3), JAN MEHNERT (a2) (a4), SONJA ROSSI (a2) (a5) and HELLMUTH OBRIG (a2) (a6)...

Previous studies have shown bilingually and monolingually developing children to differ in their sensitivity to referential pragmatic deixis in challenging tasks, with bilinguals exhibiting a higher sensitivity. The learning of adjectives is particularly challenging, but has rarely been investigated in bilingual children. In the present study we presented a pragmatic cue supporting the learning of novel adjectives to 32 Spanish–German bilingual and 28 German monolingual 5-year-olds. The children's responses to a descriptive hand gesture highlighting an object's property were measured behaviorally using a forced choice task and neurophysiologically through functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). While no group differences emerged on the behavioral level, fNIRS revealed a higher activation in bilingual than monolingual children in the vicinity of the posterior part of the right superior temporal sulcus (STS). This result supports the prominent role of the STS in processing pragmatic gestures and suggests heightened pragmatic sensitivity for bilingual children.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Agnes Groba, Universität Leipzig, Erziehungswissenschaftliche Fakultät, Institut für Förderpädagogik, Pädagogik im Förderschwerpunkt Sprache und Kommunikation, Marschnerstraße 29–31, D-04109 Leipzig, Germany
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*We thank the children and parents who participated in the study and are grateful to Maria Richter, Micol Vignotto, Julia Mock, Andrea Forster, and Sylvia Stasch for their assistance in data acquisition. Special thanks are also given to Stefan Paul Koch, Bettina Johst and Kerstin Flake for their technical contributions. This research was funded by a stipend to the first author from the federal state of Thuringia and the FAZIT-Stiftung and would not have been possible without the gracious support from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany. We are grateful to the reviewers for their constructive suggestions.

Sonja Rossi and Hellmuth Obrig contributed equally to this work.

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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
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