Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

What Bilingual Toddlers Hear and Say: Language Input and Word Combinations

Academic journal article Communication Disorders Quarterly

What Bilingual Toddlers Hear and Say: Language Input and Word Combinations

Article excerpt

Parent reports of language input patterns and word combinations among 102 toddlers with exposure to Spanish and English are presented. The majority of the parents reported that they used both languages when talking with their children. A third of the parents reported using only one language with their children. Children whose parents said they used only one language with the child did not differ from children whose parents said they used both languages in reported use of word combinations and use of mixed utterances. Descriptions of five children from the study are presented, and implications and recommendations to parents are discussed.

Professionals who provide services to young children and their families are often asked for advice on exposing young children to more than one language. Some advice given by professionals has been based on common but unsupported beliefs about bilingual language acquisition, as noted by De Houwer (1995), Kayser (1995), and Romaine (1995). Other advice has been based on research and personal experience with bilingualism (e.g., Harding & Riley, 1986; Saunders, 1980, 1982). However, the research and experiences discussed by these authors are based on a small number of children, most of whom were from families in which the parents were highly educated. Data on more children from diverse family backgrounds are needed, so that advice to parents can be based on a greater range of childhood experiences.

Because knowledge about typical language acquisition is a necessary prerequisite for answering parents' questions and for making appropriate recommendations, a brief overview of previous research on early bilingual language acquisition and language input patterns is presented in this article. Language input patterns found in a study of 102 Spanish-English bilingual 2-year-olds from a wide range of family backgrounds are described, and relationships between patterns of language input and children's word combinations are examined. Finally, descriptions of five individual children from the study are presented to illustrate expressive language development among children from a variety of family backgrounds who experience different patterns of language input. Clinical implications for advising parents are discussed throughout.


This article focuses on children who are exposed to two languages in early childhood. McLaughlin (1984) suggested the term simultaneous bilingualism to refer to the acquisition of two languages prior to 3 years of age. As he noted, this is an arbitrary cutoff, but it does differentiate children with early exposure to two languages from children whose first exposure to a second language occurs in later childhood. De Houwer (1995) suggested that, among simultaneous bilinguals, there may be additional important differences in timing of exposure. She used the term bilingual first language acquisition to refer specifically to cases in which exposure to two languages begins prior to 1 month of age. In this article, bilingual first language acquisition is not differentiated from other instances of simultaneous bilingualism, but it is important to keep in mind that there is diversity among simultaneous bilinguals as to the timing of first exposure to the two languages, in addition to a host of other sources of diversity in amount and contexts of exposure to each language.

Explicit models and implicit beliefs about how two languages are acquired and stored are the underlying basis for much of the advice given to parents of bilingual children. The basic assumption of one model, which McLaughlin (1990) called the single space model, is that the developing child is only able to handle one language well. Exposure to two languages is seen as detrimental. This is expressed as concern that children will be confused and will not learn either language well. A multitude of studies, however, have demonstrated that simultaneous bilingual children's rate and sequence of language acquisition are similar to those of monolingual children (McLaughlin, 1990). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.