Skip to main content Accessibility help

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



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.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Todd A. Gibson, 1 University Station A 1100, Austin, TX 78712, USA


Hide All

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.



Hide All
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong – desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117 (3), 497529.
Caesar, L. G., & Kohler, P. D. (2007). The state of school-based bilingual assessment: Actual practice versus recommended guidelines. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 38 (3), 190200.
Corsaro, W. A., & Eder, D. (1990). Children's peer cultures. Annual Review of Sociology, 16, 197220.
Costa, A. (2005). Speech production in bilinguals. In Bhatia, T. & Ritchie, W. (eds.), The handbook of bilingualism, pp. 201223. Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell.
Costa, A., & Santesteban, M. (2004). Lexical access in bilingual speech production: Evidence from language switching in highly proficient bilinguals and L2 learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 50 (4), 491511.
Costa, A., Santesteban, M., & Ivanova, I. (2006). How do highly proficient bilinguals control their lexicalization process? Inhibitory and language-specific selection mechanisms are both functional. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32 (5), 10571074.
Dunn, L. M. (1959). Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, L. M. (1981). Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test – Revised (PPVT–R). Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, L. M. (1997). Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test – Third Edition (PPVT–III). Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
Dunn, L. M., Padilla, E., Lugo, D., & Dunn, L. M. (1986). Test de Vocabulario en Imagenes Peabody (TVIP). Circle Pines, MN: AGS Publishing.
Gertner, B. L., Rice, M. L., & Hadley, P. A. (1994). Influence of communicative competence on peer preferences in a preschool classroom. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 37 (4), 913923.
Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, social roles, and the differences in shame and guilt. Social Research, 70 (4), 12051230.
Green, D. W. (1998). Mental control of the bilingual lexico-semantic system. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1 (2), 6781.
Hakuta, K., & D'Andrea, D. (1992). Some properties of bilingual maintenance and loss in Mexican background high-school students. Applied Linguistics, 13 (1), 7299.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.
Hermans, D., Bongaerts, T., De Bot, K., & Schreuder, R. (1998). Producing words in a foreign language: Can speakers prevent interference from their first language? Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1 (3), 213229.
Hoff, E. (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26 (1), 5588.
Hoff, E. (2009, April). Effects of dual language exposure on early lexical growth. Poster session presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.
Kan, P. F., & Kohnert, K. (2005). Preschoolers learning Hmong and English: Lexical-semantic skills in L1 and L2. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 48 (2), 372383.
Kohnert, K. (2004). Processing skills in early sequential bilinguals. In Goldstein, B. (ed.), Bilingual language development and disorders in Spanish–English speakers, pp.5376. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes.
Kroll, J., & Stewart, E. (1994). Category interference in translation and picture naming: Evidence for asymmetric connections between bilingual memory representations. Journal of Memory and Language, 33 (2), 149174.
Lee, M., & Williams, J. N. (2001). Lexical access in spoken word production by bilinguals: Evidence from the semantic competitor priming paradigm. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4 (3), 233248.
Levelt, W. J. M. (1989). Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Levelt, W. J. M., Roelofs, A., & Meyer, A. S. (1999). Multiple perspectives on word production. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22 (1), 6175.
Lidz, C., & Peña, E. (1996). Dynamic assessment: The model, its relevance as a nonbiased approach, and its application to Latino American preschool children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 27 (4), 367372.
Linck, J., Kroll, J., & Sunderman, G. (2009). Losing access to the native language while immersed in a second language: Evidence for the role of inhibition in second-language learning. Psychological Science, 20 (12), 15071515.
Miccio, A., Tabors, P., Paez, M., Hammer, C., & Wagstaff, D. (2005). Vocabulary development in Spanish-speaking head start children of Puerto Rican descent. In Cohen, J., McAlister, K, Rolsted, K & MacSwan, J. (eds.), ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism, pp. 16141617. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Morales, A., & Hanson, W. E. (2005). Language brokering: An integrative review of the literature. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 27 (4), 471503.
Muñoz, M., & Marquardt, T. (2003). Picture naming and identification in bilingual speakers of Spanish and English with and without aphasia. Aphasiology, 17 (12), 11151132.
Oller, D. K., & Eilers, R. E. (eds.) (2002). Language and literacy in bilingual children. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Oller, D. K., Jarmulowicz, L., Gibson, T., & Hoff, E. (2007). First language vocabulary loss in early bilinguals during language immersion: A possible role for suppression. In Caunt-Milton, H., Kulatilake, S. & Woo, I. (eds.), Proceedings of the 31st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, pp. 474484. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Oller, D. K., Jarmulowicz, L., Pearson, B. Z., & Cobo-Lewis, A. B. (2010). Rapid spoken language shift in early second language learning: The role of peers and effects on L1. In Durgunouglu, A. & Goldenberg, C. (eds.), Dual language learners: Their development and assessment in oral and written language, pp. 94120. New York: Guilford Press.
Oller, D. K., Pearson, B. Z., & Cobo-Lewis, A. B. (2007). Profile effects in early bilingual language and literacy. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28 (2), 191230.
Patterson, J. (2002). Relationships of expressive vocabulary to frequency of reading and television experience among bilingual toddlers. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23 (4), 493508.
Pearson, B. Z., Fernández, S., Lewedeg, V., & Oller, [D.] K. (1997). The relation of input factors to lexical learning by bilingual infants. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18 (1), 4158.
Pearson, B. Z., Fernández, S., & Oller, [D.] K. (1995). Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: One language or two? Journal of Child Language, 22 (2), 345368.
Shin, S. (2002). Birth order and the language experience of bilingual children. TESOL Quarterly, 36 (1), 103113.
Stowe, L., & Sabourin, L. (2005). Imaging the processing of a second language: Effects of maturation and proficiency on the neural processes involved. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 43 (4), 329353.
Swanson, H., Rosston, K., Gerber, M., & Solari, E. (2008). Influence of oral language and phonological awareness on children's bilingual reading. Journal of School Psychology, 46 (4), 413429.
Umbel, V. M., Oller, D. K. (1994). Developmental changes in receptive vocabulary in Hispanic bilingual school children. Language Learning, 44 (2), 221242.
Umbel, V. M., Pearson, B. Z., Fernández, M. C., & Oller, D. K. (1992). Measuring bilingual children's receptive vocabularies. Child Development, 63 (4), 10121020.
Windsor, J., & Kohnert, K. (2004). The search for common ground. Part I: Lexical performance by linguistically diverse learners. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 47 (4), 877890.
Woodcock, R. (1991). Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised (WLPB–R). Itasca, IL: Riverside Publishing.
Woodcock, R., & Muñoz-Sandoval, A. (1995). Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery – Revised: Spanish Form (WLPB–RS). Itasca, IL: Riverside Publishing.
Yan, S., & Nicoladis, E. (2009). Finding le mot juste: Differences between bilingual and monolingual children's lexical access in comprehension and production. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12 (3), 323335.


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



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed