Predictive use of matched and mismatched gender-marked articles in Spanish-English bilinguals
Most behavioral research involving typically-developing children has been devoted to understanding language production processes, but there is limited information on language comprehension; thus, part of the developmental picture is incomplete. Although there is a growing body of literature focusing on production of grammatical forms for bilingual children, there is a critical need to understand how children’s comprehension skills develop in conjunction with production skills by understanding their language knowledge and language experience. With regard to grammatical class, articles are especially important because they precede nouns in most contexts in Spanish and therefore are used with a high frequency in all aspects of language. Articles should be studied in the language processing of elementary age children to understand what children attend to during language comprehension. In this study, the visual world paradigm was used to examine gendered articles using phonological competitors in trials with informative (different-gender grammatical trials), uninformative (same-gender grammatical trials), or incorrect (ungrammatical trials) articles in bilingual children and adults. Participants named common nouns and completed an eye-tracking task, a grammaticality judgment task, and a standardized vocabulary test in both English and Spanish. Bilingual children ages 5-6 and 8-9 did not show gender sensitivity in informative vs. uninformative trials but were significantly slower on ungrammatical trials. Bilingual adults showed sensitivity to gender and were significantly faster on informative trials relative to uninformative trials, which in turn were significantly faster than ungrammatical trials regardless of participants’ profile of current Spanish language input. Children may be merging their representation of articles in the two languages and not find the gender cue in Spanish to be necessary. Spanish, a gendered language and English, a non-gendered language, may be in competition during this developmental period. Bilingual adults are able to quickly and accurately process the incoming gendered information, and are therefore able to demonstrate gender sensitivity.