Bilingual beginnings to learning words

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2009 Dec 27;364(1536):3649-63. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0105.


At the macrostructure level of language milestones, language acquisition follows a nearly identical course whether children grow up with one or with two languages. However, at the microstructure level, experimental research is revealing that the same proclivities and learning mechanisms that support language acquisition unfold somewhat differently in bilingual versus monolingual environments. This paper synthesizes recent findings in the area of early bilingualism by focusing on the question of how bilingual infants come to apply their phonetic sensitivities to word learning, as they must to learn minimal pair words (e.g. 'cat' and 'mat'). To this end, the paper reviews antecedent achievements by bilinguals throughout infancy and early childhood in the following areas: language discrimination and separation, speech perception, phonetic and phonotactic development, word recognition, word learning and aspects of conceptual development that underlie word learning. Special consideration is given to the role of language dominance, and to the unique challenges to language acquisition posed by a bilingual environment.

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Multilingualism*
  • Pattern Recognition, Physiological
  • Phonetics*
  • Speech Perception*
  • Verbal Learning*