Extracts from “ASSESSING LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN BILINGUAL PRESCHOOL CHILDREN” by Barry McLaughlin; Antoinette Gesi Blanchard; Yuka Osanai

TABLE 1: A Typology of Bilingual Development Based on Conditions of Exposure and Use

Subsequent Experience

High Opportunity/ motivation for use of both languages:

Low opportunity/ motivation for use of both languages:



High exposure to both languages:

Simultaneous Bilingualism

(Type 1)

Receptive Bilingualism

(Type 2)

Low exposure to one language:

Rapid Sequential Bilingualism

(Type 3)

Slow Sequential Bilingualism

(Type 4)


In this table, Type 1 bilingualism represents the case of children who are simultaneously bilingual in the sense that both languages develop equally or nearly equally as they are exposed to both and have good opportunities to use both. Although perfectly balanced bilinguals are rare, many children in early childhood education programs have been exposed to two languages and use both. For example, many children speak Spanish with their parents and older relatives, but English with their siblings and other children.

Type 2 represents children who have had high exposure to a second language throughout their lives, but have had little opportunity to use the language. For example, many migrant children from Mexico hear English on television, in stores and so on, but use Spanish in everyday communication. When they enter early childhood education programs, these children are likely to make rapid progress in English because their comprehension skills have been developed.

Types 3 and 4 represent children who are learning a second language sequentially, that is, after the first language is established. Type 3 children have also had little exposure to English before entering early childhood education programs, but they use English as much as they can and so are likely to be more rapid learners than are Type 4 children. In the case of Type 4 children, there has been little prior exposure to English and they have few opportunities-or avail themselves of few opportunities-to use English.

Stages of Development

  1. First, the child uses the home language. When everyone around the child is speaking a different language, there are only two options-to speak the language they already know, or to stop speaking entirely. Many children, but not all, follow the first option for some period of time (Saville-Troike, 1987). This of course leads to increasing frustration, and eventually children give up trying to make others understand their language.
  2. The second stage is the nonverbal period. After children abandon the attempt to communicate in their first language, they enter a period in which they do not talk at all. This can last for some time, or it can be a brief phase. Although they do not talk during this time, children attempt to communicate nonverbally to get help from adults or to obtain objects. Furthermore, this is a period during which children begin actively to crack the code of the second language. Saville-Troike (1987) noted that children will rehearse the target language by repeating what other speakers say in a low voice and by playing with the sounds of the new language.
  3. The next stage occurs when the child is ready to go public with the new language. There are two characteristics to this speech-it is telegraphic and it involves the use of formulas. Telegraphic speech is common in early monolingual language development and involves the use of a few content words without function words or morphological markers. For example, a young child learning to speak English may say “put paper” to convey the meaning, “I want to put the paper on the table.” Formulaic speech refers to the use of unanalyzed chunks of words or routine phrases that are repetitions of what the child hears. Children use such prefabricated chunks long before they have any understanding of what they mean (Wong Fillmore, 1976).
  4. Eventually, the child reaches the stage of productive language use. At this point the child is able to go beyond short telegraphic utterances and memorized chunks. Initially, children may form new utterances by using formulaic patterns such as “I wanna” with names for objects. In time, the child begins to demonstrate an understanding of the syntactic system of the language. Children gradually unpackage their formulas and apply newly acquired syntactic rules to develop productive control over the language.

Click here to read the article in full.