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Finding le mot juste: Differences between bilingual and monolingual children's lexical access in comprehension and production*

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 July 2009

By school age, some bilingual children can score equivalently to monolinguals in receptive vocabulary but still lag in expressive vocabulary. In this study, we test whether bilingual children have greater difficulty with lexical access, as has been reported for adult bilinguals. School-aged French–English bilingual children were given tests of receptive vocabulary and picture naming. The bilingual children's performance was compared to English monolinguals'. We found that bilingual children scored slightly lower on some measures of comprehension and lower on producing the target word. The bilinguals were more likely to correctly identify the target picture even if they had not produced the name. The differences in comprehension but not production could be statistically accounted for by the variation in receptive vocabulary. These results suggest that, school-aged bilinguals can be close to monolinguals in receptive vocabulary but have a harder time accessing the exact word for production. We discuss reasons for this difficulty with lexical access and strategies that children used when they did not produce the target word.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Elena Nicoladis, Department of Psychology, University of Alberta, P2-17 Biological Sciences Building, Edmonton AB, T6G 2E9,
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This study was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to the second author and the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Researcher Award to the first author. Geoff Hollis designed the computer program to present pictures to children in random order. We would like to thank Ne Chi Lin Ko, Richard Landry, and Stéphanie Turcotte for helping test the children. The Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord allowed us to recruit bilingual children in the French schools. Thanks to all the children and their parents. Paula Marentette and anonymous reviewers gave us useful feedback on an earlier version.

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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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