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Effects of past language experience and present language context on the shape bias in Spanish–English bilingual children

Abstract English‐monolingual children develop a shape bias early in language acquisition, such that they more often generalize a novel label based on shape than other features. Spanish‐monolingual children, however, do not show this bias to the same extent (Hahn & Cantrell, 2012). Studying children who are simultaneously learning both Spanish and English presents a unique opportunity to further investigate how this word‐learning bias develops. Thus, we asked how Spanish–English bilingual children (Mage = 21.31 months) perform in a novel‐noun generalization (NNG) task, specifically examining how past language experience (i.e. language exposure and vocabulary size) and present language context (i.e. whether the NNG task was conducted in Spanish or English) influence the strength of the shape bias. Participants completed the NNG task either entirely in English (N = 16) or entirely in Spanish (N = 16), as well as language understanding tasks in both English and Spanish to ensure that they understood what the experimenter was asking them to do. Parents completed a language exposure survey and vocabulary checklists in Spanish and English. There was a significant interaction between condition and choice type: Bilingual children in the English condition showed a shape bias in the NNG task, but bilingual children in the Spanish condition showed no reliable biases. No measures of past language experience were related to NNG task performance. These results suggest that when learning new words, bilingual children are attuned to the regularities of the present language context, and prior language experiences may play a more secondary role.

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