Bilingual toddlers process mixed sentences differently in their two languages

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Description: In bilingual language environments, infants and toddlers listen to two separate languages during the same key years that monolingual children listen to just one, and bilinguals rarely learn each of their two languages at the same rate. Learning to understand language requires them to cope with challenges not found in monolingual input, notably the use of two languages within the same utterance (e.g., Do you like the perro? or ¿Te gusta el doggy?). For bilinguals of all ages, switching between two languages can reduce efficiency in real-time language processing. But language switching is a dynamic phenomenon in bilingual environments, presenting the young learner with many junctures where comprehension can be derailed or even supported. In the current study, we tested Spanish-English bilingual toddlers who varied substantially in language dominance. Toddlers’ eye movements were monitored as they looked at familiar objects and listened to single-language and mixed-language sentences in both of their languages. We found asymmetrical switch costs when toddlers were tested in their dominant vs. non-dominant language, and critically, they benefited from hearing nouns produced in their dominant language, independent of switching. While bilingualism does present unique challenges, our results suggest a united picture of early monolingual and bilingual learning. Just like monolinguals, experience shapes bilingual toddlers’ word knowledge, and with more robust representations, toddlers are better able to recognize words in diverse sentences.

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