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Language differentiation in early bilingual development*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Fred Genesee*
McGill University
Elena Nicoladis
McGill University
Johanne Paradis
McGill University
Psychology Department, McGill University, 1205 Dr Penfield Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, CanadaH3A. 1B1. email:


It has been claimed that children simultaneously acquiring two languages go through an initial stage when they are unable to differentiate between their two languages. Such claims have been based on the observation that at times virtually all bilingual children mix elements (e.g. lexical, morphological) from their two languages in the same utterance. That most, if not all, children acquiring two languages simultaneously mix linguistic elements in this way is widely documented. Although such code-mixing is not well understood or explained, there are a number of explanations unrelated to lack of language differentiation that may explain it. Moreover, while language differentiation is widely attested among bilingual children once functional categories emerge, usually during the third year, there is still some question as to how early in development differentiation is present. In this study, we examined language differentiation in five bilingual children prior to the emergence of functional categories (they ranged in age from 1;10 to 2;2 and in MLU from 1·23 to 2·08). They were observed with each parent separately and both together, on separate occasions. Our results indicate that while these children did code mix, they were clearly able to differentiate between their two languages. We also examine the possibility that the children's mixing is due to (a) their language dominance, and (b) their parents' rate of mixing. We could find no evidence that their mixing was due to parental input, but there was some evidence that language dominance played a role.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995

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We would like to thank the parents and their children for their generous co-operation throughout this research. Revisions of this manuscript have benefited from helpful comments by two anonymous reviewers and the editor. We also thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Ottawa, Canada, for their financial support of this work (grant No. 410-91-1936).



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