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Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: One language or two?
Journal of Child Language (1995)
  • Barbara Zurer Pearson, University of Miami
  • Sylvia C. Fernandez, University of Miami
  • D.Kimbrough Oller, University of Miami

This study tests the widely-cited claim from Volterra & Taeschner (1978), which is reinforced by Clark's Principle of Contrast (1987), that young simultaneous bilingual children reject cross-language synonyms in their earliest lexicons. The rejection of translation equivalents is taken by Volterra & Taeschner as support for the idea that the bilingual child possesses a single-language system which includes elements from both languages. We examine first the accuracy of the empirical claim and then its adequacy as support for the argument that bilingual children do not have independent lexical systems in each language. The vocabularies of 27 developing bilinguals were recorded at varying intervals between ages 0;8 and 2;6 using the MacArthur CDI, a standardized parent report form in English and Spanish. The two single-language vocabularies of each bilingual child were compared to determine how many pairs of translation equivalents (TEs) were reported for each child at different stages of development. TEs were observed for all children but one, with an average of 30% of all words coded in the two languages, both at early stages (in vocabularies of 2-12 words) and later (up to 500 words). Thus, Volterra & Taeschner's empirical claim was not upheld. Further, the number of TEs in the bilinguals' two lexicons was shown to be similar to the number of lexical items which co-occurred in the monolingual lexicons of two different children, as observed in 34 random pairing for between-child comparisons. It remains to be shown, therefore, that the bilinguals' lexicons are not composed of two independent systems at a very early age. Furthermore, the results appear to rule out the operation of a strong principle of contrast across languages in early bilingualism.

  • lexical development,
  • bilingual
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This article is covered by provision for NIH supported materials. The website for the journal is It will be in their digital archive when it is done.
Citation Information
Barbara Zurer Pearson, Sylvia C. Fernandez and D.Kimbrough Oller. "Cross-language synonyms in the lexicons of bilingual infants: One language or two?" Journal of Child Language Vol. 22 (1995)
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