Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children


Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children” is a research project that was funded by the Leverhulme Trust between September 2012 and May 2015.  The team comprised Cecile De Cat (principal investigator), Ludovica Serratrice (co-investigator), Sanne Berends and Furzana Shah (research assistants).

The aims of the project were

  1. to extend previous findings on the relationship between key executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory) and language experience to bilingual children who have unbalanced exposure to two languages;
  2. to gather new information on the role played by language proficiency, bilingual experience and SES on the above subset of executive function skills and on referential abilities;
  3. to develop our understanding of the linguistic and non-linguistic contextual variables affecting children’s referential choices (visual context, awareness of differences in perspective between speaker and listener, and linguistic factors affecting a referent’s prominence).

We targeted a highly heterogeneous group of children, in terms of socio-economic status and bilingual experience.  There was a total of 28 home languages in our sample: Punjabi (21%), Urdu (17%), Arabic (9%), Spanish (6%), French (8%), Bengali, Cantonese, Catalan, Dutch, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Kurdish, Mandarin, Marathi, Mirpuri, Nepalese, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Shona, Somalian, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tigrinya (each of the latter representing less than 5% of the data).

There was a total of 174 children in the final sample (including 87 monolinguals).  The children were between 5 and 7 years of age at the time of testing.  The amount of bilingual experience varied substantially across children, ranging from very little experience in the home language (in the “almost monolingual” children) to clear dominance of the home language (in children for whom English was the weaker language).


  1. A bilingual advantage in cognitive (executive function) skills was only found in the inhibition task.  The main child-related predictors of performance were age, socio-economic status, self-monitoring, and amount of home language experience. Using a novel method of analysis, we identified a critical threshold of home language experience for the bilingual advantage (correcting for age, socio-economic status and self-monitoring). Most of the children above that threshold came from households in which both parents spoke the home language with their children all the time. See De Cat, C., Gusnanto, A., & Serratrice, L. (2017). Identifying a threshold for the executive function advantage in bilingual children. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-33. or for open access: main paper and supplementary material
  2. We proposed a new measure of bilingual language experience (the Bilingual Profile Index) that takes into account discrepancies between the amount of exposure a child experiences in his/her home language and the extent to which s/he uses that language, and reflects variations in language exposure throughout the lifetime of the child.  When it is calculated for the home language experience, the BPI predicts various aspects of proficiency in English (the language of schooling) in 5- to 7-year olds.  It can be interpreted as a measure of language dominance.  See De Cat, C. & Serratrice, L. (under review). Predicting language proficiency in bilingual children. Open Science Framework,
  3. Children’s ability to communicate information effectively is influenced by the same factors in bilingual and monolingual children. In 5- to 7-year olds, the ability to take the perspective of the listener into account is modulated by modality and by their inhibition abilities: at that age, children are generally not able to adapt to the fact that their interlocutor is not able to see what they can see, but those with better inhibition skills are able to take into account the information previously shared verbally with their interlocutor.  English proficiency was also a strong predictor of performance in our tasks, which put some bilingual children at a disadvantage.  See Serratrice, L. and De Cat, C. (under review). Individual Differences in the Production of Referential Expressions: The Effect of Language Proficiency, Language exposure and Executive Function in Bilingual and Monolingual Children.


We developed a trial version of an online calculator of bilingual language experience, available at the link above.

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