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Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: one language or two?*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Barbara Zurer Pearson*
University of Miami
Sylvia Fernández
University of Maryland
D. K. Oller
University of Miami
University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group, Department of English, Box 248145, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA.


This study tests the widely-cited claim from Volterra & Taeschner (1978), which is reinforced by Clark's Principle Of Contrast (1987), that young simultaneous bilingual children reject cross-language synonyms in their earliest lexicons. The rejection of translation equivalents is taken by Volterra & Taeschner as support for the idea that the bilingual child possesses a single-language system which includes elements from both languages. We examine first the accuracy of the empirical claim and then its adequacy as support for the argument that bilingual children do not have independent lexical systems in each language. The vocabularies of 27 developing bilinguals were recorded at varying intervals between ages 0;8 and 2;6, using the MacArthur GDI, a standardized parent report form in English and Spanish. The two single-language vocabularies of each bilingual child were compared to determine how many pairs of translation equivalents (TEs) were reported for each child at different stages of development. TEs were observed for all children but one, with an average of 30% of all words coded in the two languages, both at early stages (in vocabularies of 2–12 words) and later (up to 500 words). Thus, Volterra & Taeschner's empirical claim was not upheld. Further, the number of TEs in the bilinguals' two lexicons was shown to be similar to the number of lexical items which co-occurred in the monolingual lexicons of two different children, as observed in 34 random pairings for between-child comparisons. It remains to be shown, therefore, that the bilinguals' lexicons are not composed of two independent systems at a very early age. Furthermore, the results appear to rule out the operation of a strong principle of contrast across languages in early bilingualism.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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This research was supported in part by Grant 5RO1 0000484 NIH NIDCD, and was presented at the 19th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, January 1994, Boston, MA. We gratefully acknowledge the help of Donna Thal and Donna Jackson-Maldonado of the Center for Research on Language at UC San Diego for the use of the Spanish forms. We give special thanks to the Family Co-ordinators, Devorah Basinger, Vanessa Lewedag, and Sharyse Levine, and to the families who participated and persevered.



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