Skip to main content

Language use affects proficiency in Italian–Spanish bilinguals irrespective of age of second language acquisition*


The role of age of acquisition (AoA) in reaching native-like proficiency in second language is controversial. The existence of a critical period and the effect of AoA have been questioned by studies testing lexical and/or morphosyntactic skills, and by functional brain exploration. The aim of this study was to verify the effect of AoA and language practice on proficiency in a bilingual pragmatic task and its relationship with cognitive skills. The study involved a group of Italian–Spanish bilinguals, classified according to their AoA and language use. All participants performed a pragmatic bilingual test and a battery of cognitive tests. A multivariate analysis showed significant effects of language use and cognitive skills and a non-significant effect of AoA. These results indicate that continued language practice is a major factor influencing high bilingual proficiency, irrespective of AoA, suggesting that proficiency may be weakened when bilingual experience becomes occasional or ceases.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Fabrizio De Carli, Institute of Molecular Bioimaging and Physiology, C.N.R., Via de Toni, 5, I 16132, Genoa, Italy
Hide All

The study reported in this paper was funded by a grant from Genoa University (projects selection 2007). The authors would like to thank the reviewers for their comments and suggestions which helped to improve the manuscript. They also thank Frances I. Evans Mariani and Jennifer Accardo for their valuable assistance with manuscript editing.

Hide All
Abrahamsson N., & Hyltenstam K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning, 59, 249306.
Abutalebi J. (2008). Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychologica, 128, 466478.
Abutalebi J., Tettamanti M., & Perani D. (2009). The bilingual brain: Linguistic and non-linguistic skills. Brain & Language, 109, 5154.
Albert M. S. (2011). Changes in cognition. Neurobiology of Aging, 32 Suppl 1, S5863.
Annett M. (1970). A classification of hand preference by association analysis. British Journal of Psychology, 61, 303321.
Banks M. S., Aslin R. N., & Letson R. D. (1975). Sensitive period for the development of human binocular vision. Science, 190, 675677.
Barbarotto R., Laiacona M., Frosio R., Vecchio M., Farinato A., & Capitani E. (1998). A normative study on visual reaction times and two Stroop colour–word tests. Italian Journal of Neurological Sciences, 19, 161170.
Beck A. T., Steer R. A., Ball R., & Ranieri W. (1996). Comparison of Beck Depression Inventories–IA and –II in psychiatric outpatients. Journal of Personality Assessment, 67, 588597.
Bialystok E., & Miller B. (1999). The problem of age in second-language acquisition: Influences from language, structure, and task. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 2, 127145.
Birdsong D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning, 56, 949.
Birdsong D., & Molis M. (2001). On the evidence for maturational constraints in second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 44, 235249.
Consonni M., Cafiero R., Marin D., Tettamanti M., Iadanza A., Fabbro F., & Perani D. (2013). Neural convergence for language comprehension and grammatical class production in highly proficient bilinguals is independent of age of acquisition. Cortex, 49, 12521258.
Costa A., Miozzo M., & Caramazza A. (1999). Lexical selection in bilinguals: Do words in the bilingual's two lexicons compete for selection? Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 365397.
Craik F. I., Bialystok E., & Freedman M. (2010). Delaying the onset of Alzheimer disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75, 17261729.
Daw N. W. (2009). The foundations of development and deprivation in the visual system. Journal of Physiology, 587, 27692773.
Dehaene S., Dupoux E., Mehler J., Cohen L., Paulesu E., Perani D., van de Moortele P. F., Lehericy S., & Le Bihan D. (1997). Anatomical variability in the cortical representation of first and second language. Neuroreport, 8, 38093815.
Fabbro F. (2001). The bilingual brain: Cerebral representation of languages. Brain & Language, 79, 211222.
Fabbro F., Skrap M., & Aglioti S. (2000). Pathological switching between languages after frontal lesions in a bilingual patient. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 68, 650652.
Festman J., Rodriguez-Fornells A., & Munte T. F. (2010). Individual differences in control of language interference in late bilinguals are mainly related to general executive abilities. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 6, 112.
Flege J. E., Yeni-Komshian G. H., & Liu S. (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 78104.
Frenck-Mestre C., & Prince P. (1997). Second language autonomy. Journal of Memory and Language, 37, 481501.
Fusco M. A. (1995). Conference interpretation between cognate languages: Towards a workable methodology. The Interpreters’ Newsletter, 6, 93109.
Geyer A., Holcomb P. J., Midgley K. J., & Grainger J. (2011). Processing words in two languages: An event-related brain potential study of proficient bilinguals. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 24, 338351.
Green D. W. (1998). Mental control of the bilingual lexico-semantic system. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1, 6781.
Green D. W. (2003). Neural basis of lexicon and grammar in L2 acquisition: The convergence hypothesis. In van Hout R., Hulk A., Kuiken F. & Towell R. (eds.), The lexicon–syntax interface in second language acquisition, pp. 197218. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Grosjean F. (1998). Studying bilinguals: Methodological and conceptual issues. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1, 131149.
Gurd J. M., Weiss P. H., Amunts K., & Fink G. R. (2003). Within-task switching in the verbal domain. Neuroimage, 20 Suppl 1, S5057.
Hartsuiker R. J., Costa A., & Finkbeiner M. (2008). Bilingualism: Functional and neural perspectives. Acta Psychologica, 128, 413415.
Hernandez A. E., & Li P. (2007). Age of acquisition: Its neural and computational mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 638650.
Hervais-Adelman A. G., Moser-Mercer B., & Golestani N. (2011). Executive control of language in the bilingual brain: Integrating the evidence from neuroimaging to neuropsychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 2, 18.
Hilchey M. D., & Klein R. M. (2011). Are there bilingual advantages on nonlinguistic interference tasks? Implications for the plasticity of executive control processes. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 625658.
Hyltenstam K., & Stroud C. (1993). Second language regression in Alzheimer's dementia. In Hyltenstam K. & Viberg A. (eds.), Progression and regression in language: Sociocultural, neuropsychological and linguistic perspectives, pp. 222242. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Johari K., Ashrafi F., Zali A., Ashayeri H., Fabbro F., & Zanini S. (2013). Grammatical deficits in bilingual Azari–Farsi patients with Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 26, 2230.
Johnson J. S., & Newport E. L. (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, 6099.
Klein D., Milner B., Zatorre R. J., Zhao V., & Nikelski J. (1999). Cerebral organization in bilinguals: A PET study of Chinese-English verb generation. Neuroreport, 10, 28412846.
Kotz S. A. (2009). A critical review of ERP and fMRI evidence on L2 syntactic processing. Brain & Language, 109, 6874.
Kroll J. F., & De Groot A. M. B. (eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lenneberg E. (1967). Biological foundations of language. Oxford: Wiley.
Litvan I., Aarsland D., Adler C. H., Goldman J. G., Kulisevsky J., Mollenhauer B., Rodriguez-Oroz M. C., Troster A. I., & Weintraub D. (2011). MDS Task Force on mild cognitive impairment in Parkinson's disease: Critical review of PD-MCI. Movement Disorders, 26, 18141824.
Long M. (2005). Problems with supposed counter-evidence to the critical period hypothesis. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 43, 287317.
Lorenzen B., & Murray L. L. (2008). Bilingual aphasia: A theoretical and clinical review. American Journal of Speech–Language Pathology, 17, 299317.
MacWhinney B. (2005). A unified model of language acquisition. In Kroll & De Groot (eds.), pp. 49–67.
Marian V., Spivey M., & Hirsch J. (2003). Shared and separate systems in bilingual language processing: Converging evidence from eyetracking and brain imaging. Brain & Language, 86, 7082.
Mayberry R. I., & Lock E. (2003). Age constraints on first versus second language acquisition: Evidence for linguistic plasticity and epigenesis. Brain & Language, 87, 369384.
Mayberry R. I., Lock E., & Kazmi H. (2002). Linguistic ability and early language exposure. Nature, 417, 38.
Meguro K., Senaha M. L. H., Caramelli P., Ishizaki J., Chubacci R. Y. S., Meguro M., Ambo H., Nitrini R., & Yamadori A. (2003). Language deterioration in four Japanese–Portuguese bilingual patients with Alzheimer's disease: A trans-cultural study of Japanese elderly immigrants in Brazil. Psychogeriatrics, 3, 6368.
Miyashita Y. (2004). Cognitive memory: Cellular and network machineries and their top-down control. Science, 306, 435440.
Mohamed Zied K., Phillipe A., Pinon K., Havet-Thomassin V., Aubin G., Roy A., & Le Gall D. (2004). Bilingualism and adult differences in inhibitory mechanisms: Evidence from a bilingual Stroop task. Brain and Cognition, 54, 254256.
Morgan-Short K., Steinhauer K., Sanz C., & Ullman M. T. (2012). Explicit and implicit second language training differentially affect the achievement of native-like brain activation patterns. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 933947.
Morrison C. M., & Ellis A. W. (2000). Real age of acquisition effects in word naming and lexical decision. British Journal of Psychology, 91, 167180.
Nelson P. T., Alafuzoff I., Bigio E. H., Bouras C., Braak H., Cairns N. J., Castellani R. J., Crain B. J., Davies P., Del Tredici K., Duyckaerts C., Frosch M. P., Haroutunian V., Hof P. R., Hulette C. M., Hyman B. T., Iwatsubo T., Jellinger K. A., Jicha G. A., Kovari E., Kukull W. A., Leverenz J. B., Love S., Mackenzie I. R., Mann D. M., Masliah E., McKee A. C., Montine T. J., Morris J. C., Schneider J. A., Sonnen J. A., Thal D. R., Trojanowski J. Q., Troncoso J. C., Wisniewski T., Woltjer R. L., & Beach T. G. (2012). Correlation of Alzheimer disease neuropathologic changes with cognitive status: A review of the literature. Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology, 71, 362381.
Nissen M. J., & Bullemer P. (1987). Attentional requirements of learning: Evidence from performance measures. Cognitive Psychology, 19, 132.
Novelli G., Papagno C., Capitani E., Laiacona M., & Cappa S. F. (1986). Tre test clinici di ricerca e produzione lessicale: Taratura su soggetti normali. Archivio di Psicologica, Neurologia e Psichiatria, 47, 477506.
Pakulak E., & Neville H. J. (2011). Maturational constraints on the recruitment of early processes for syntactic processing. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 27522765.
Paradis M. (2004). The neurolinguistic theory of bilingualism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Paradis M. (2009). Declarative and procedural determinants of second languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Park H. R. P., Badzakova-Trajkov G., & Waldie K. E. (2012). Language lateralisation in late proficient bilinguals: A lexical decision fMRI study. Neuropsychologia, 50, 688695.
Penfield W., & Roberts L. (1959). Speech and brain mechanisms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Perani D., Abutalebi J., Paulesu E., Brambati S., Scifo P., Cappa S. F., & Fazio F. (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, 170182.
Perani D., Paulesu E., Galles N. S., Dupoux E., Dehaene S., Bettinardi V., Cappa S. F., Fazio F., & Mehler J. (1998). The bilingual brain. Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language. Brain, 121, 18411852.
Phillips N. A., Segalowitz N., O’Brien I., & Yamasaki N. (2004). Semantic priming in a first and second language: Evidence from reaction time variability and event-related brain potentials. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 17, 237262.
Picconi B., Piccoli G., & Calabresi P. (2012). Synaptic dysfunction in Parkinson's disease. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 970, 553572.
Potter M. C., So K. F., Eckardt B. V., & Feldman L. B. (1984). Lexical and conceptual representation in beginning and proficient bilinguals. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 23, 2338.
Prior A., & MacWhinney B. (2010). A bilingual advantage in task switching. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13, 253262.
Proverbio A. M., Cok B., & Zani A. (2002). Electrophysiological measures of language processing in bilinguals. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14, 9941017.
Riehl C. M. (2010). The mental representation of bilingualism. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 1, 750758.
Rossi S., Gugler M. F., Friederici A. D., & Hahne A. (2006). The impact of proficiency on syntactic second-language processing of German and Italian: Evidence from event-related potentials. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 20302048.
Segalowitz N., & Hulstijn J. (2005). Automaticity in bilingualism and second language learning. In Kroll & De Groot (eds.), pp. 371–388.
Segalowitz N., & Trofimovich P. (2011). Second language processing. In Gass S. M. & Mackey A. (eds.), The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, pp. 179192. New York: Routledge.
Setton R. (1999). Simultaneous interpretation: A cognitive–pragmatic analysis. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Singleton D. (2005). The critical period hypothesis: A coat of many colours. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 43, 269285.
Ullman M. T. (2001). A neurocognitive perspective on language: The Declarative/Procedural Model. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2, 717726.
Van Assche E., Duyck W., Hartsuiker R. J., & Diependaele K. (2009). Does bilingualism change native-language reading? Cognate effects in a sentence context. Psychological Science, 20, 923927.
White L., & Genesee F. (1996). How native is near-native? The issue of ultimate attainment in adult second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 12, 233265.
Zanini S., Angeli V., & Tavano A. (2011). Primary progressive aphasia in a bilingual speaker: A single-case study. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 25, 553564.
Zanini S., Tavano A., & Fabbro F. (2010). Spontaneous language production in bilingual Parkinson's disease patients: Evidence of greater phonological, morphological and syntactic impairments in native language. Brain & Language, 113, 8489.
Zanini S., Tavano A., Vorano L., Schiavo F., Gigli G. L., Aglioti S. M., & Fabbro F. (2004). Greater syntactic impairments in native language in bilingual Parkinsonian patients. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 75, 16781681.
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? *


Type Description Title
Supplementary Materials

De Carli Supplementary Material
Supplementary Material

 Word (87 KB)
87 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 26
Total number of PDF views: 136 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 302 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.