The role of experience in acquisition of English grammar



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Children learn language through experience by hearing and speaking the target language (Lany & Gomez, 2008; Rinaldo & Caselli, 2008). Children with different levels of experience with English would be expected to perform differently on linguistic tasks, including grammatical performance, depending on the amount of experience they have with English. Previous studies have found differences in grammatical performance depending on the amount of English the child speaks at home and school and socioeconomic status (SES) (Gathercole, 2002a; 2002b). DeBot (2000) proposes an adaptation of Levelt’s (1993) blueprint of the speaker, where he postulates that individuals who have more experience with a second language will present with less influence from the first language. The current study aims to evaluate changes made from pre-test to post-test, as well as performance at pre-test and post-test in the use of grammatical and Spanish-influenced utterances by Spanish-English bilingual children with different amounts of experience with English. We also evaluated the grammaticality of the Spanish-influenced utterances produced. Eighty-four Spanish-English bilingual kindergarten age children with typically developing language participated in the pre-test, narrative intervention, and post-test. Children’s current use of English ranged from 3% to 100% of the time during a typical week, based on parent and teacher reports. We also evaluated the role of mother SES (using weighted values for mother’s level of education and mother’s occupation); scores ranged from 0 to 58. Consistent with predictions from DeBot’s (2000) adaptation of Levelt’s (1993) blueprint of the speaker, results show that experience with English did make a difference in performance. Children who had more experience with English produced more grammatical utterances and fewer Spanish-influenced utterances. Overall, a small amount of Spanish-influenced utterances were used, but when Spanish-influenced utterances were used, they were more likely to be ungrammatical. Consistent with previous studies, experience appears to be predictive of performance in the use of grammatical and Spanish-influenced utterances in English. Clinically, results demonstrate the importance of understanding the client’s experience with English when evaluating language performance. Future studies are needed to determine if similar patterns are evident in bilingual children with language impairment.