Links between Spanish-language processing efficiency at 2 years and English- and Spanish-language outcomes in emerging bilinguals

Publication Date


Document Type



Child and Adolescent Development

Publication Title

International Congress of Infant Studies Biennial Congress

Conference Location

Philadelphia, PA, United States


An increasing number of Latino children in the US speak primarily Spanish at home and have minimal proficiency in English when they enter school. Many Spanish-dominant emerging bilingual children are also from lower-SES backgrounds and thus, are at increased risk for poor academic outcomes. The strongest correlate of later success in school is oral language skills achieved before kindergarten (Morgan et al., 2015). A question with wide-reaching significance is whether oral language skills in a child's first language or L1 (e.g., Spanish) will transfer and support later learning in a second language, L2 (e.g., English). To capture oral language processing efficiency in very young children, we use an experimental task of real-time language comprehension, the "looking-while-listening" (LWL) task (Fernald et al., 2008). In monolingual children, individual differences in language processing efficiency in toddlerhood have been linked to later language outcomes in English (Marchman & Fernald, 2008) and Spanish (Hurtado et al., 2007). Here, we explore within- and across-language relations in emerging Spanish-English bilinguals to examine the extent to which Spanish real-time comprehension at 2 years supports language outcomes at 4½ years in both Spanish and English. Participants (n=70) were 2-year-olds from primarily Spanish-speaking families. In the LWL task, eye-movements were video-recorded as children looked at pictures of familiar objects and heard speech naming one of the pictures (e.g., ¿Dónde está el perro?). Reaction time (RT) and Accuracy were derived. At 4½ years, children were assessed in Spanish and English receptive vocabulary (TVIP/PPVT) and expressive language (CELF-P/PLS-4). Table 1 shows that children were from primarily lower-SES families. At 2 years, children were reported to be exposed predominantly to Spanish and were performing above chance in the Spanish LWL task, t(69)=16.9, p<.001. By 4½ years, many children had increased exposure to English, but were still predominantly exposed to Spanish. Children were performing near the expected mean, on average, in Spanish receptive vocabulary, t(69)=1.4, p=.18, but lower than expected in Spanish expressive language, t(66)=3.9, p=.01. Unsurprisingly, children were performing below expected levels in English, and lower in English than in Spanish in both receptive vocabulary, t(69)=4.0, p<.01, and expressive language, t(63)=2.4, p=.02. We examined the unique contribution of Spanish-language processing efficiency at 2 years to children's language skills in Spanish and English at 4½ years, controlling for SES, age, and relative Spanish-English exposure. As expected, Spanish RT accounted for significant unique variance in later Spanish receptive, r2-ch=18.4%, p<.001, and expressive language, r2-ch=13.1%, p<.001, skills. Critically, Spanish RT was also a significant predictor of later English receptive, r2-ch = 18.0%, p < .001, and expressive language outcomes, r2-ch=9.3%, p < .01. Those children who were faster in Spanish comprehension at 2 years were those children with stronger English receptive (Figure 1a) and expressive (Figure 1b) language skills at 4½ years, controlling for amount of exposure to English and other covariates. These results suggest that children's early efficiency of real-time comprehension in their L1 strengthen critical information processing skills that support learning in their L2 as they get ready for school.