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Title: Multilingualism Development in the Young Child

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Major Contributors

Barbara Lust, Sujin Yang, Yarden Kedar

Lab (s) Name (s)

Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) & Virtual Center for Language Acquisition (VCLA)


Coverage (countries)



English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew, Japanese




Even larger than the mystery of first language acquisition in young children is the mystery of their ability to acquire more than one language simultaneously. Our initial interest in multilingual language acquisition has begun with a simple but truly amazing observation of children learning English as a second language. Children who speak different languages other than English are first immersed into an English-speaking community and rapidly acquire the language to become bilingual. It is noteworthy that children, despite their cognitive immaturity in comparison to adults, can achieve such a feat within such a short period of time. In the CLAL, in conjunction with the VCLA, several research projects are underway which study various aspects of the development of bilingualism or multillingualism in the young child. One set of studies involves longitudinal case studies of several young children acquiring English for the first time at 3 years of age through immersion in the Cornell Early Childhood Center and local nurseries. Another set involves cross-sectional studies of children developing bilingualism to assess the linguistic process of L2 acquisition and its effects on L1 more broadly, but also to investigate effects of bilingualism on either their cognitive or their social development. . Cross-linguistic comparisons (across various L1s) allow the assessment of parametrically different languages in bilingualism. Comparisons across school and home allow assessment of personal and social context. Multilingualism projects at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, thus, investigate language development (both L2 and L1) among bilingual and multilingual children and also consider its impacts on cognitive and social development, dissociating culture, context and language.. A large amount of existing monolingual first language acquisition data provides a continual comparison in this research, and in its methodology.


We intend to better grasp the mystery of the child’s successful acquisition of a second language, especially during the early years of language development. Our endeavors to demystify unresolved issues involved in the study of bilingualism have compelled us to ask also: how can we develop appropriate and more scientific methodologies for the study of bilingualism? Through these new methodological innovations We then attempt to study the course of dual language acquisition and its linguistic, cognitive and social dimensions


1.What methodology can we use to capture the process of developing bilingualism and thus begin to explain it?

Previous approaches to examine bilingual language acquisition have been often based on anecdotal observations or testing of individual aspects of linguistic skills only in one language of the two, thus providing only limited understanding of how bilingual children acquire linguistic knowledge. To address these limitations, a new methodology for the scientific investigation of language acquisition across different domains in bilingual children should be developed. The method combines a longitudinal series of experimental and naturalistic investigations to capture how children acquire a complex linguistic system—syntax, lexicon, semantics, and pragmatics—of a second language of English without any formal language instruction. Both L1 and L2 are investigated on multiple dimensions in parallel.

2. How does bilingualism unfold during early childhood cognitive development and what kinds of mechanisms does bilingualism exert in forming a language system specific to bilinguals?

One component of our research seeks to identify the precise mechanisms which explain how different or similar bilinguals are from monolinguals in language and attention development. Our study of bilingualism encompasses all aspects of a language system from syntax, lexico-semantics to pragmatics and a higher order cognitive function of executive attention.

This component of research asks: If there are cognitive advantages in favor of bilingualism, what are they, how can we precisely measure them, and how do they interact with other environmental factors?

3. How do different languages interact in bilingualism and at what developmental periods? This effort is a continuation of a previous research by Flynn and her colleagues in the research of cross-linguistic differences in second language learning and of Reiko Mazuka and her colleagues who studied the role of cross-language differences on early language processing.


The design of our studies is distinct from other subjective and inference-based observational case studies in that:

(1) It sets out to test the child’s language ability in the English language by meticulously designed and standardized linguistic/psychological experiments such as the Elicited Imitation tasks, Peabody Picture Vocabulary tests, Expressive Vocabulary Tests, and other tasks that have been used in previously published research works. Our projects are designed to be cross-linguistic, experimental and longitudinal in nature. We take observational, and questionnaire approaches as supplementary research methods to support experimental findings.

(2) It not only measures the improvement of English as a second language but also the maintainence or attrition of a first language by conducting observations and experiments in two language versions.

(3) To capture the course of development, longitudinal case studies are combined with cross-sectional group studies.

(4) The scope of the current research is extended to measure the child’s growing knowledge in every aspect of the linguistic system such as syntax (grammar), lexicon (vocabulary), semantics (meaning systems), and pragmatics (social usage) by tapping his/her production and comprehension on experimental tasks.

(5) Our general observation, along with the collection of natural speech data, attempts to grasp the child’s behavioral/linguistic changes in communication strategies and pragmatic development as well.

(6) Our research is marked for its addition of two questionnaires (the VLL Child Multilingualism Questionnaire and Pragmatics Profile of Early Communication Skills) for more precise assessment of the child’s bilingual environment, degree of bilingualism, and the development communicative skills. The questionnaires are given to caregivers and teachers at multiple time points.

(7) Well-established measures of attention functions are used at different points of time to calibrate the relationship between language and general cognitive development. For example, we use an Attention Network Test (ANT), a new neurophysiological measure, which is a combined task of cued reaction time and a flanker task designed to probe attentional performance across several dimensions by measuring accuracy rates, reaction times and network efficiency scores on the basis of reaction times.

(8) Context and social environmental factors are assessed by contrasting measures in school and at home.

(9)_ General cultural factors are dissociated from specific linguistic factors by assessments of monolingual children studied internationally.

(10) Language development in the bilingual child is being systematically compared to studies of monolingual language development, including matched experimental designs.


Different projects are currently being developed in support of our general rationale and agenda.

I. Multilingual Language Development

(a) Case studies
A series of case studies are being developed. These trace the development of the second language English, in small children (3 years of age) exposed for the first time to English in the Early Childhood Center of Cornell, and in neighboring nursery schools. Five bilingual language types are currently under investigation; Chinese-, Korean-, Japanese-, Hebrew-, and Spanish-speaking children learning English as a second language. This case study project involves a new method for scientifically studying the development of the second language in comparison to the first, and for systematically assessing different components of language knowledge: We have been collecting data to understand, for example, how various domains of linguistic knowledge interact in development, in what relative order they develop , how L1 and L2 development compare and relate, and, as well as how this dual language acquisition is related to cognitive development. We also assess the factor of cross-language differences in order to assess the roles of language specificity and generality in development.

(b) Cross-sectional Studies Hebrew-English Names of Ongoing Projects: MultiCaseKor-Eng, MultiCaseCh-Eng, MultiHeb-Eng, MultiCaseHeb-Eng, MultiCaseJap-Eng.

II. Multilingual Children’s Development of Executive Attention
One set of studies is based on years of previous research on the beneficial effects of bilingualism on cognitive development, particularly on a dimension of executive attention; these lead us to question the mechanisms that make bilingual children intrinsically different from monolingual counterparts in cognitive formation A developmental study of several age groups of bilingual children (aged 4 to 8) is under way to examine a developmental trajectory of executive attention and to compare this to monolinguals. In addition, an effort has been made to compare bilingual children and adults to investigate commonalities and differences in of the manner of efficient relocation of attentional resources. Currently, cross-linguistic influences of bilingualism on executive attention are being studied, contrasting some Romance and some Asian languages in particular.

In addition, the factor of culture versus language is being dissociated.

Names of Ongoing Projects: MultiCogKor-Eng, MultiCogSp-Eng.

• Abbreviations: MultiCog: Multilingualism Cognitive Advantages Project Kor-Eng: Korean-English Study Sp-Eng: Spanish-English Study

• Abbreviations: MultiCase: Multilingualism Case Project
Kor-Eng: Korean-English Study Chi-Eng: Chinese-English Study Heb-Eng: Hebrew-English Study Jap-Eng: Japanese-English Study


The first wave of longitudinal research of the multilingual language development studies was launched in October, 2005 when the measures and procedures for data collection were developed and specific research design was implemented. Our applications of scientific methodologies to the current investigations have begun producing tangible data to broaden our understanding of the nature and process of bilingualism. For example, one set of interesting findings challenges the frequently argued claim that “comprehension precedes production” in language acquisition, for which we aim to present the results at an upcoming conference. Another set of data yielded evidence on relative rates of acquisition of various dimensions of language knowledge in young developing bilingual children, presented at another national conference. Studies to examine bilingual children’s attention development, launched in 2002, have been producing intriguing findings on how bilingual language acquisition affects cognition in young children and adults and how it also interacts with a variety of cross-linguistic combinations among bilingual speakers. Our collaborative approaches to the current research will be also empowered by our connection with the Virtual Center for the Study of Language Acquisition (VCLA), which has integrated multiple U.S. and international institutions and scholars around the world to study language acquisition of more than 20 languages. This center will provide a valuable set of archived cross-linguistic data for comparison. It will also further supply us with research tools such as experiment designs, materials, and data analyses methods. Presently, to conduct the multilingual language development research in a larger scale with a team of people with expertise in a second language acquisition, we have begun to establish a joint effort with VCLA member, Dr. Suzanne Flynn, professor of Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by transferring and implementing the same research designs and methodologies to several different bilingual groups in Boston.


    • Director & Co-director: Barbara Lust & Sujin Yang
    • Affiliated faculty members: Jim Gair & Qi Wang
    • Collaborators: Suzanne Flynn (MIT)
    • Graduate collaborators: Yarden Kedar, Zofia Stankiewicz, Madeleine Domenech
    • Undergraduate StudentsI. MultiCaseKor-Eng, MultiCaseCh-Eng, MultiHeb-Eng, MultiCaseHeb-Eng, & MultiCaseJap-Eng: Lu You, Aeri Lee, Megan Ferris, Kristen Pallonetti, Christina Yi, Ina Hwang, Kuung-Ah Kim (on leave)

      II. MultiCogKor-Eng, MultiCogSp-Eng: Ninfa Leal, Katyusca Abreu, Jon Berger, Alex Cardenas, Jorge Dorantes, Daniela Veronica Jibaja, Fransheska Ovalles, Min Ji Park, Stephanie Rodriguez, Julia Rosenberg, Meredith Santana, Erica Shreck, Laura Suttle, Mika Watanabe

    • Project Alumni :Soon Park (Chicago University), Narae Lee, Janet Lee, Emily Wellikoff


(MultiCaseKor-Eng & MultiCaseCh-Eng Studies) Yang, S., You, L., Park, S, Lee, N., & Lust, B. (2007). Comprehension Does Not Always Precede Production: Evidence through a New Scientific Method from a Chinese-English Bilingual Child. To be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Conference, May, 2007.

Kim, K., Yang, S., & Lust, B. (2007). A Case Study of Childhood Bilingualism: Syntax First. To be presented at the Linguistic Society of America. January, 2007, Anaheim, CA.

Lee, N., Park, S., & Yang, S. (2006). A Korean child’s bilingual development of English in word knowledge and pragmatic skills. Poster presented at the NE Sigma Xi Conference, April, 2006, NY. (Researcher Advisor: Dr. Barbara Lust)

Park, S., Lee, N., & Yang, S. (2006). A Chinese child’s bilingual language development in English: Lexical and pragmatic aspects. Poster presented at the NE Sigma Xi Conference, April, 2006, NY. (Researcher Advisor: Dr. Barbara Lust)

(MultiCogKor-Eng, MultiCogSp-Eng) Yang, S., Leal, N., Yang, H., & Lust, B. (2007). Dissociating Culture from Bilingualism: The Role of Culture in Beneficial Effects of Bilingualism on Executive Attention. To be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Conference, May, 2007.

Yang, S., Yang, H., Leal, N., & Lust, B. (2007). Investigating the Role of Culture in Bilingual Cognitive Advantages for 4-Year-Old Preschoolers on Executive Attention. To be presented at the Society for Research in Child Development. April, 2007, Boston, MA.

Yang, S., & Lust, B. (2006). Cross-Linguistic Differences in Cognitive Effects due to Bilingualism: Experimental Study of Lexicon and Executive Attention in 3 typologically distinct language groups. Paper presented at the Boston University Conference on Language Development. November, 2006, Boston, MA.

Yang, S., Park, S., & Lust, B. (2006). Relating bilingualism and language proficiency in executive attention: Comparison of children and adults. Poster presented at the Language Acquisition and Bilingualism Conference. May, 2006, Toronto, ON., Canada.

Yang, S., Herlihy, C., Shih, J., Lee, N., & Lust, B. (2006). Behavioral Dissociations Revisited among Bilingual Children by Using the Standard and Modified Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) Tasks. Poster presented at the American Psychological Society Conference. May, 2006, New York City, NY.

Herlihy, C., & Yang, S. (2006). Investigating differences in attentional control between monolingual and bilingual children using a modified version of the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) task. Poster presented at the NE Sigma Xi Conference, April, 2006, NY. (Won 1st place poster award)(Researcher Advisor: Dr. Barbara Lust)

Yang, S., & Lust, B. (2005). Testing persistence of bilingual cognitive advantages in children and young adults in executive attention via the Attention Network Test (ANT). Paper presented at the 5th International Symposium on Bilingualism. March, 2005, Barcelona, Spain.

Yang, S., Shih, J., & Lust, B. (2005). Exploring cognitive advantages of childhood bilingualism through new tests of executive attention. Poster presented at the biannual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, April, 2005, Atlanta, GA.

Yang, S., & Lust, B. (2004). Effects of bilingualism on the Attention Network Test: Its significance and implications. Poster presented at the Boston University Conference on Language Development, November, 2004, Boston University, MA.


(MultiCogKor-Eng, MultiCogSp-Eng) Yang, S., & Lust, B. (2007). Cross-Linguistic Differences in Cognitive Effects due to Bilingualism: Experimental Study of Lexicon and Executive Attention in 3 typologically distinct language groups. BUCLD 31 Proceedings, Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Yang, S., Blume, M., & Lust, B. (2006). Virtual Linguistic Lab (VLL) Child Multilingualism Questionnaire. Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory, Cornell University.

Shih, J. (2005). Studying early bilingual differences in executive function with a modified Dimensional Change Card Sort: Investigating in two language groups with varying head direction. Unpublished manuscript of Honor’s Thesis, Cornell University.

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (2005). Testing effects of bilingualism on executive attention: comparison of cognitive performance on two non-verbal tests. BUCLD 29: Proceedings online supplement of the 29th Boston University Conference on Language Development, Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Yang, S. (2004). Testing Bilingual Children’s Cognitive Advantages in Executive Attention. Unpublished manuscript of Master’s thesis, Cornell University.


(MultiCogKor-Eng, MultiCogSp-Eng) Yang, S. & Lust, B. (in preparation). Investigating typological distance effects in executive attention among Korean, Chinese and Spanish bilinguals.

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (in preparation). The emergence of cognitive benefits on executive attention among Korean preschoolers who are becoming bilingual: A preliminary report.

Yang, S. (in preparation). Impacts of early childhood bilingualism on the development of executive attention: Evidence from the Attention Network Test (ANT). Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University.