Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Relative language exposure, processing efficiency and vocabulary in Spanish–English bilingual toddlers*


Research with monolingual children has shown that early efficiency in real-time word recognition predicts later language and cognitive outcomes. In parallel research with young bilingual children, processing ability and vocabulary size are closely related within each language, although not across the two languages. For children in dual-language environments, one source of variation in patterns of language learning is differences in the degree to which they are exposed to each of their languages. In a longitudinal study of Spanish/English bilingual children observed at 30 and 36 months, we asked whether the relative amount of exposure to Spanish vs. English in daily interactions predicts children's relative efficiency in real-time language processing in each language. Moreover, to what extent does early exposure and speed of lexical comprehension predict later expressive and receptive vocabulary outcomes in Spanish vs. English? Results suggest that processing skill and language experience each promote vocabulary development, but also that experience with a particular language provides opportunities for practice in real-time comprehension in that language, sharpening processing skills that are critical for learning.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Nereyda Hurtado, Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305,
Hide All

We are grateful to the children and parents who participated in this research. Special thanks to the reviewers and editors of this journal for their thoughtful comments and suggestions. Thanks to Adriana Weisleder, Lucía Rodríguez Mata, Ana Luz Portillo, Amber MacMillan, Renate Zangl, Lucia Martinez, Araceli Arroyo, and the staff of the Center for Infant Studies at Stanford University. This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health to Anne Fernald (HD 42235, DC 008838) with a Postdoctoral Research Supplement for Underrepresented Minorities to Nereyda Hurtado and a National Research Service Award (NRSA) to Theres Grüter (F32 DC010129-01).

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.

K. Byers-Heinlein (2012). Parental language mixing: Its measurement and the relation of mixed input to young bilingual children's vocabulary size. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 16, 3248.

P. S. Dale (1991). The validity of a parent report measure of vocabulary and syntax at 24 months. Journal of Speech and Hearing Sciences, 34, 565571.

P. S. Dale , & L. Fenson (1996). Lexical development norms for young children. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers, 28, 125127.

A de Houwer . (2007). Parental language input patterns and children's bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 411424.

Elin Thordardottir (2011). The relationship between bilingual exposure and vocabulary development. International Journal of Bilingualism, 15, 426445.

Elin Thordardottir , A. Rothenberg , M-E. Rivard , & R. Naves (2006). Bilingual assessment: Can overall proficiency be estimated from separate measurement of two languages? Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders, 4, 121.

A. Fernald , & V. A. Marchman (2011). Causes and consequences of variability in early language learning. In I. Arnon & E. V. Clark (eds.), Experience, variation, and generalization: Learning a first language (Trends in Language Acquisition Research), pp. 181202. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

A. Fernald , & V. A. Marchman (2012). Individual differences in lexical processing at 18 months predict vocabulary growth in typically-developing and late-talking toddlers. Child Development, 83, 203222.

A. Fernald , A. Perfors , & V. A. Marchman (2006). Picking up speed in understanding: Speech processing efficiency and vocabulary growth across the second year. Developmental Psychology, 42, 98116.

A. Fernald , J. P. Pinto , D. Swingley , A. Weinberg , & G. W. McRoberts (1998). Rapid gains in speed of verbal processing by infants in the second year. Psychological Science, 9, 7275.

A. Fernald , R. Zangl , A. L. Portillo , & V. A. Marchman (2008). Looking while listening: Using eye movements to monitor spoken language comprehension by infants and young children. In I. Sekerina , E. M. Fernández & H. Clahsen (eds.), Developmental psycholinguistics: On-line methods in children's language processing, pp. 97135. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

J. E. Flege , I. R. A. MacKay , & T. Piske (2002). Assessing bilingual dominance. Applied Psycholinguistics, 23, 567598.

N. Goodz (1989). Parental language mixing in bilingual families. Infant Mental Health Journal, 10, 2544.

M. Guiberson , B. L. Rodríguez , & P. S. Dale (2011). Classification accuracy of brief parent report measures of language development in Spanish-speaking toddlers. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in School, 42, 536549.

V. F. Gutiérrez-Clellen , & J. Kreiter (2003). Understanding child bilingual acquisition using parent and teacher reports. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 267288.

E. Hoff (2003). The specificity of environmental influence: Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary development via maternal speech. Child Development, 74, 13681878.

E. Hoff (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26, 5588.

N. Hurtado , V. A. Marchman , & A. Fernald (2008). Does input influence uptake? Links between maternal talk, processing speed and vocabulary size in Spanish-learning children. Developmental Science, 11, F31F39.

J. Huttenlocher , W. Haight , A. Bryk , M. Seltzer , & T. Lyons (1991). Vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27, 236248.

A. M. Kovács , & J. Mehler (2009). Flexible learning of multiple speech structures in bilingual infants. Science, 325 (5940), 611612.

V. A. Marchman , & A. Fernald (2008). Speed of word recognition and vocabulary knowledge in infancy predict cognitive and language outcomes in later childhood. Developmental Science, 11, F9F16.

V. A. Marchman , & C. Martínez-Sussmann (2002). Concurrent validity of caregiver/parent report measures of language for children who are learning both English and Spanish. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 45, 993997.

V. A. Marchman , C. Martínez-Sussmann , & P. S. Dale (2004). The language-specific nature of grammatical development: Evidence from bilingual language learners. Developmental Science, 7, 212224.

S. Place , & E. Hoff (2011). Properties of dual language exposure that influence 2-year-olds’ bilingual proficiency. Child Development, 82, 18341849.

M. A. Restrepo (1998). Identifiers of predominantly Spanish-speaking children with language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 41, 13981411.

E. T. Rodríguez , C. S. Tamis-LeMonda , M. E. Spellmann , B. A. Pan , H. Raikes , J. Lugo-Gil , & G. Luze (2009). The formative role of home literacy experiences across the first three years of life in children from low-income families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 677694.

M. L. Rowe (2008). Child-directed speech: Relation to socioeconomic status, knowledge of child development, and child vocabulary skill. Journal of Child Language, 35, 185205.

L. Song , C. S. Tamis-LeMonda , H. Yoshikawa , R. Kahana-Kalman , & I. Wu (2011). Language experiences and vocabulary development in Dominican and Mexican infants across the first 2 years. Developmental Psychology, 48, 11061123.

M. Tomasello , & C. Mervis (1994). The instrument is great, but measuring comprehension is still a problem. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, 174179.

J. F. Werker , & K. Byers-Heinlein (2008). Bilingualism in infancy: First steps in perception and comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12, 144151.

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: 11
Total number of PDF views: 136 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 443 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.