Say that Again: Independent language development in bilingual children

By Meg Thode

            When a child is bilingual, the linguistic development of one language takes places independently from that process in the other. That is what a team of researchers from Florida Atlantic University found in their research with English-Spanish bilingual children. It has previously been established that expanding children’s vocabulary is correlated to more sophisticated use of grammar, and vice versa. This team wanted to know whether exposure in one language was correlated to development of or sophistication in the other. For this study, vocabulary and level of grammatical development were measured in children who spoke Spanish and English as their first languages at six-month intervals between the ages of 2 and a half to 4 years. The finding was that the two are not related; although, in some children, development of English skills made their Spanish more vulnerable.

The study leader, Erika Hoff, frames it so: "There is something about differences among the children and the quality of English they hear that make some children acquire vocabulary and grammar more rapidly in English and other children develop more slowly.” She continues, "I think the key takeaway from our study is that it's not the quantity of what the children are hearing; it's the quality of their language exposure that matters. They need to experience a rich environment." This research has a number of applications, including education policy and child care programs.


Florida Atlantic University. (2017, April 20). In young bilingual children, two languages develop simultaneously but independently: Study also shows Spanish is vulnerable to being taken over by English, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 21, 2017 from