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Cognition. 1990 Jan;34(1):1-56.

The effects of learning two languages on levels of metalinguistic awareness.

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Yale University.


The purpose of this study is to determine whether a bilingual environment-the juxtaposition of two language systems learned simultaneously-enhances children's awareness of the language(s) they are learning to speak. The study explores the development of metalinguistic awareness at three different levels of explicit knowledge about language in monolingual children, and assesses the effects of a bilingual experience on this developmental process. To observe the development of metalinguistic awareness and to test the bilingual hypothesis, we compared metalinguistic skills in 32 Spanish-speaking and 32 English-speaking monolinguals and in 32 Spanish-English bilinguals aged 4:5 to 8:0. The Spanish and English metalinguistic tests each contained 15 different ungrammatical constructions (e.g., "Steven and Robert is a brother") and 15 grammatically correct "fillers." For each item, the children were asked in the appropriate language to note whether the construction was correct or incorrect, to correct the errors they noted, and to explain why those errors were wrong. We found that the monolingual children followed the same sequence in acquiring the ability to detect, to correct, and to explain grammatical errors; in particular, they progressed from a content-based orientation to a form-based orientation to language at each of the three levels. However, we noted different outcomes in terms of the types of grammatical constructions that were easy for monolinguals to master at each level-the constructions that were easy to detect and correct were distinct from those that were easy to explain. The bilingual experience was found to speed the transition from a content-based to a form-based approach to language at certain levels of awareness (detection and correction), but had less of an effect on explanations. Moreover, the bilingual experience did not appear to affect the types of grammatical constructions that were easy to master at any of the three levels. These data suggest that the experience of learning two languages hastens the development of certain metalinguistic skills in young children, but does not alter the course of that development. Thus, while learning two languages may enhance a speaker's "ear" for regularities of form, it does not appear to augment his grammatical "mind" for understanding those regularities.

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