Bilingual children's storytelling vocabulary in both languages matches that of monolinguals: study

New findings run counter to previous research that suggested bilingual children experience delays in language development.

Bilingual children use just as many words as monolingual children when telling stories in both their languages, contradicting previous research that found bilingual children scored lower than monolingual children on standardized vocabulary tests, a new study shows.

University of Alberta researchers examined a group of Mandarin-English bilingual children between the ages of four and six, and a group of English monolingual children of the same age. Both groups were asked to watch a short cartoon, then retell the story in their languages.

"Our findings show that the bilingual children told stories with just as many different words in both languages, compared with monolingual children," explained Elena Nicoladis, lead author and professor in the Department of Psychology. "They are not using simpler words. They are using words that are just as hard to say and with just as high or low frequency."

The difference in the study's results compared to previous research findings, Nicoladis suggested, may result from the ability of bilingual children to shift their attention in free-form tasks.

When bilingual children are approaching a concept they don't know how to explain, they are able to shift their attention to another, similar way of saying it, explained Nicoladis. For example, the story involved a panther. Instead of saying "panther," some bilingual children used the word "cat" to tell the story instead. Although the word wasn't exactly correct, it was functional and acceptable for the purposes of telling a story.

"A lot of research up until now has shown delays in bilingual children," said Nicoladis. "Our results suggest that as soon as you get them into a more free-form type of task, which would be closer to what schools are likely to ask for, we don't see anything that looks even remotely like a delay."

The study, "Language and Cognitive Predictors of Lexical Selection in Storytelling for Monolingual and Sequential Bilingual Children," was published in the Journal of Cognition and Development.