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Competing language structures: the acquisition of verb placement by bilingual German-English children

    • Published online: 01 October 1998

The simultaneous acquisition of two languages in early childhood presents an interesting test case for language acquisition theories. Children in bilingual environments receive input which could potentially lead to output systems different to those of monolingual children. The speech of three bilingual German-English children was recorded monthly between the ages of 2;0 and 5;0. The analysis of word order in the verb phrase shows that initial structural separation was followed by an extended period of non-target structures in German before the children eventually worked out which structures overlap and which structures differentiate the two languages. The bilingual data point towards language being acquired incrementally, on the basis of cue strength and cue cost. It is suggested that the partially overlapping structures in the input from German and English create structural saliencies for the child before they are functionally accessible. Functional identification eventually leads to structural separation.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Susanne Döpke, Department of Linguistics, Monash University, Clayton VIC 3168, Australia. e-mail:
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The project has been funded by ARC Small Grants in 1992, 1994 (Melbourne University) and 1995 (Monash University). Since mid-1994 I have been an ARC Fellow. I gratefully acknowledge this support. My thanks go to the families who participated in the study, and my research assistants Angelika Roethgen, Irmi Gürtler, Katja Goodall and Fiona Salmon, Brian MacWhinney, Michael Clyne, Simone Duxbury and the anonymous reviewers who offered helpful comments at various stages of the manuscript.
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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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