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: Paper available here.  This paper received the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition for the year 2018.
  2. The language proficiency of bilingual children varies considerably (developmentally and across individuals). We measured different aspects of EAL children’s proficiency in English (focusing on interpreting and repeating complex sentences, and on aspects of vocabulary knowledge). Our analyses show that children’s performance in English proficiency tests is influenced by the amount of experience of English they have had over their lifetime. Using a new method of analysis, we found that children between the ages of 5 and 7 who had been exposed to English for 60% of the time over their lifetime had “caught up” with their monolingual peers. Passivity in the home language does not have a “protective” effect on school language proficiency. Children’s environment (as reflected by the socio-economic profile of their family) also has an impact. See for the full paper, or the summary of our findings on OASIS. 
  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. (2019). Individual Differences in the Production of Referential Expressions: The Effect of Language Proficiency, Language exposure and Executive Function in Bilingual and Monolingual Children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.

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