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Title: Cross-linguistic influence and grammatical development in preschool-age children learning Spanish and English

Major Contributors:

Jennifer Austin, Liliana Sánchez, and Gretchen Van de Walle

Lab(s) Name(s):

Rutgers University (Newark, NJ), Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ)

Project URL:

Project Coverage:

United States (Union City, NJ; Elizabeth, NJ; Hoboken, NJ)


Spanish and English

Project Date(s):

Fall 2008 - Spring 2011


This project is about the study the effects of language contact on syntactic development in bilingual Latino preschoolers. The leading questions of the project will be addressed by studying the development of sentential subjects and past tense inflection in the children’s English and Spanish. We have chosen these areas of grammar because they have distinct morphosyntactic characteristics in Spanish and in English, which will make effects of cross-linguistic influence more apparent. In addition, previous research has indicated that adult heritage speakers of Spanish who began learning English before seven years old do not use sentential subjects and past tense verbs in Spanish in the same way that native speakers do (Silva-Corvalán 1994, Montrul 2002, 2004, 2006). Studying young bilingual children will clarify the question of whether these differences between the grammars of adult monolingual speakers and heritage speakers of Spanish are the result of incomplete acquisition, first language attrition (loss), syntactic convergence between the languages or a combination of these factors. In research on adult bilinguals, these possible explanations have been confounded. Additionally, previous studies of the Spanish of adult heritage bilinguals leave open the question of whether the English of these young speakers is similarly affected by cross-linguistic contact, a possibility that this study will address. The study proposed here will address in greater depth the question of how language develops in young heritage speakers of Spanish by considering the amount of exposure to both languages in school as an independent variable, collecting different types of data and by examining the same areas of grammar that have been shown to be vulnerable to cross-linguistic influence in adult heritage speakers.


While the questions addressed in this project are of direct relevance to researchers investigating bilingualism and child language development, they also speak to fundamental concerns in the study of linguistics, including the nature of the human capacity to acquire grammar, and how this ability responds to differences in the language experience of individual speakers. Outside of the field of linguistics, these results have interesting implications as well. First, by providing data on the impact of immersion in English versus enrollment in a bilingual curriculum at the preschool level they could inform policymakers as to the effects of preschool curricula on the development of language minority students. In addition, the results from this study could assist in the diagnosis of language impairments by giving a more detailed picture of the patterns of language acquisition in typically – developing children in distinct bilingual environments. As Jacobson and Schwartz (2002:39) remark, “the differentiation of Spanish-speaking children with language disorders and those experiencing language attrition is crucial”, given that non-target use of verbal inflection is characteristic of bilingual children experiencing first language loss (Anderson 1999, 2001, 2004) and those with SLI in Spanish (Merino 1983, Restrepo 1998, Restrepo & Kruth 2000) and English (Wexler, Schütze & Rice 1998,Wexler, Schaeffer & Bol 2004). Finally, research by Muñoz et. al. (2003) found that syntactic accuracy may be a more valid indicator of narrative ability in young bilingual Latino children than other linguistic measures such as vocabulary size. Given that narrative ability is an important predictor of future achievements in language and literacy (Bishop & Edmunson 1987), this study could also help assess children at risk for future literacy delays by providing a detailed picture of early syntactic development in the narratives of young Latino children.


A. Does cross-linguistic influence in the Spanish of young bilingual children result from attrition or from incomplete acquisition? Is it the result of syntactic convergence between their languages? B. What are the effects of language contact on the acquisition of syntax in sequential bilingual children in both of their languages? C. Do children enrolled in an English immersion preschool program show more signs of influence from English in their Spanish syntax than children attending an ESL program or dual-immersion Spanish/ English preschool? Is the same true of syntactic influence from Spanish in their English? How does the grammatical development of children enrolled in these three curricular models compare to monolingual children acquiring English or Spanish? D. How much cross-linguistic influence is present in the language input that Spanish-speaking children growing up in immigrant families in the U.S. receive from their parents?


In analyzing the data, we will evaluate three hypotheses regarding the possible effects of language contact on the children’s developing Spanish: language attrition, incomplete acquisition and convergence. Hypothesis 1:Early L1 attrition Prediction: During the first session the children should produce Spanish structures that are native-like for children at four years of age. They should be able to produce imperfect and preterit tenses with stative and non-stative verbs, and correctly use null versus overt subjects in Spanish. Over time, children should start producing verbs marked for the preterit in contexts that require the imperfect and vice-versa. The children should also begin using overt subjects in non-native-like contexts where they were not used before in Spanish. Hypothesis 2: Incomplete L1 acquisition Prediction: It is possible that the children in this study never reach native-like levels of proficiency in their acquisition of Spanish. In this case, we would expect to see a leveling off (or fossilization) of grammatical competence in the use of past tense verbs and null versus overt subjects in Spanish. If this were the case, during the first session the children should not produce native-like Spanish structures. They should produce past tense verbs that are incorrectly marked for the imperfect/preterit distinction and fail to use null and overt subjects in a target-like way. Hypothesis 3: Convergence with English A third possibility is that the children’s Spanish is neither incomplete nor undergoing attrition per se, but rather is converging with the grammar of English. Prediction: In this scenario the children’s Spanish grammar would become more similar to their English in areas where the two grammars diverge, but the children would not show a loss of grammatical competence in other parts of their L1 grammar. If this were the case, the children would begin to use the past progressive in Spanish rather than the imperfect. They should also use overt subjects in non-target-like contexts. Other data analyses: We will investigate the children’s developing English syntax, in order to see whether their use of the past tense or null subjects is different from that of monolingual English-speaking children. In addition, we will compare the use of past tense marking and subject use in Spanish in the parents’ speech samples to that of native speakers in order to see whether the input that the children are receiving contains contact-related variation. Two methods will be used to collect data from the children who participate in this study: an elicited production task and natural speech samples. We will also collect a sample of natural speech from the children’s parents. We will recruit children between 4-5 years old acquiring Spanish and English who are enrolled in public preschool programs in Union City, NJ, Elizabeth, NJ and Hoboken, NJ. They will be children who began learning English at 3 years old in preschool, a group considered to be early second language learners or sequential bilinguals. Agenda Before data collection begins, parents will be given a questionnaire assessing their child’s language history and proficiency in English and Spanish. Two types of data will be collected from each child in Spanish and in English on two separate visits: a 15-minute natural speech sample and a 10-minute elicited production task. There will be two experimenters present: the P.I. and an undergraduate research assistant who is a native speaker of non-Caribbean Spanish. On one day the child will be tested in Spanish by the research assistant, and on a subsequent visit within a week’s time in the other language by the P.I. Each child will be tested individually in an empty classroom or the gymnasium of the school which the child attends. The 25-minute interview sessions will consist of recording the child as he/she performs the elicited production task as well as the natural speech sample (talking about books and toys that we will bring for the children), either in English with the PI or in Spanish with the undergraduate research assistant. For the elicited production task, we will ask the children to look at laminated 8×10″ photocopies of 5 pages from the “Frog, Where Are You?” book by Maurice Mayer. This task has been used successfully with children of this age in numerous cross-linguistic studies of narrative development (Berman et. al. 1994, Berman 2001, Aksu-Koc et. al 2008) and with Latino bilingual children between 3 and 5 years old (Muñoz et. al. 2003). For this task, we will ask the children questions in the past such as “Who was in the room?” or “What happened next?” to encourage them to narrate the activities depicted in the story in their own words. We will conduct the 25-minute interviews in September, January and May starting this year and finishing in May of 2011. Data collection has begun at the Union City research site this Fall (2008) and will continue through May 2009; We plan to collect data in Elizabeth from September 2009-May 2010, and in Hoboken from Fall 2011-May 2011. Twenty children will be recruited from each research site each year, and we anticipate that 8-10 from each school will participate in the project. Of these children, We expect that another 1-3 students will drop out of the study during the course of the year, so that there will be approximately 5-8 children who participate for an entire year from each school (for a total of approximately 20 children, including the data collected this year). The children will be recruited for the study based on their early language background (initially monolingual in Spanish, beginning to learn English at three) and having parents who are native speakers of non-Caribbean dialects of Spanish. We anticipate that this group of children will include first and second-generation immigrants to New Jersey.



  • elicited production task
  • natural speech.

Children’s parents:

  • natural speech.


We have obtained IRB approval from Rutgers University to conduct this study in Union City (protocol #08-272c), as well as permission from Adriana Birne, the Director of Early Childhood Education in Union City and the Board of Education in Union City. At present, we are collecting data in Union City. We are also in the process of obtaining permission to conduct the study from the dual immersion school in Elizabeth, NJ and as the Elizabeth Board of Education, in addition to submitting a new IRB to include the Elizabeth research site beginning in Fall of 2009. Next Fall, we will seek permission to conduct the study in Hoboken, and plan to begin collecting data there in Fall of 2010


Primarily, we expect to communicate research findings to policymakers through presentations at national and international conferences, journal articles and eventually a book which will specifically address the policy implications of this research. We will also ask for advice on disseminating research to policy makers from organizations with considerable experience in this area, such as The Association for Children of New Jersey and the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network (both based in Newark, NJ) as well as NIEER (the National Institute for Early Education Research, based in New Brunswick and affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University).


Austin, Jennifer; Sánchez, Liliana, and Van den Walle, Gretchen Cross-linguistic influence and grammatical development in preschool-age children learning Spanish and English