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Language differentiation in early bilingual development*

  • Fred Genesee (a1), Elena Nicoladis (a1) and Johanne Paradis (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 September 2008

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.

Corresponding author
Psychology Department, McGill University, 1205 Dr Penfield Avenue, Montreal, Quebec, CanadaH3A. 1B1. email:
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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).

Linked references
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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.

R. Brown (1973). A first language: the early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

S. Dopke (1992). One parent, one language: an interactional approach. Amsterdam: Benjamin.

F. Genesee & R. Bourhis (1988). Evaluative reactions to language choice strategies: the role of socio-structural factors. Language and Communication 8, 229–50.

N. S. Goodz (1989). Parental language mixing in bilingual families. Infant Mental Health Journal 10, 2543.

J. M. Meisel (1990 b). INFL-ection: subjects and subject-verb agreement. In J. M. Meisel (ed.), Two first languages: early grammatical development in bilingual children. Dordrecht: Foris.

J. Petersen (1988). Word-internal code-switching constraints on a bilingual child's grammar. Linguistics 26, 479–93.

S. Poplack (1980). Sometimes I'll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en Español: toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics 18, 581618.

S. N. Sridhar & K. K. Sridhar (1980). The syntax and psycholinguistics of bilingual code switching. Canadian Journal of Psychology 34, 407–16.

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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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