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Gottardo, A., and Grant, A. Page 1 of 7
Defining Bilingualism
Written by: Alexandra Gottardo and Amy Grant, Department of Psychology, Wilfrid
Laurier University
The definition of bilingualism is complex and is influenced by multiple factors such as
the age of acquisition of the second language, continued exposure to the first language
(L1), relative skill in each language and the circumstances under which each language
is learned. Popular definitions of bilingualism conceptualize language knowledge as
being a binary category—whether one is classified as having acquired two languages or
not (Brutt-Griffler & Varghese, 2004). However, bilingualism should be thought of as
being on a continuum, where one can have varying levels of proficiency in two
languages, regardless of how and when they were acquired. In addition, language and
literacy skills are comprised of multiple subskills. In any given language, bilinguals might
be highly proficient in one domain of skills but not the other. For example, a person
might show high oral language skills and limited reading skills. The problems in defining
bilingualism and the consequences of bilingualism on specific reading related skills will
be explored throughout this paper.
Key Goals
The key goals of the paper are:
1. To make people aware of the complexity of defining bilingualism
2. To briefly describe social and environmental factors related to degrees of bilingualism
3. To describe consequences and implications of bilingualism
Definitions of Bilingualism
Classifications of bilinguals in the research usually acknowledge the complexity of
defining bilingualism. In its simplest form, bilingualism is defined as “knowing” two
languages (Valdez & Figueora, 1994). However, a major difficulty occurs in defining
what it means to “know” a language. Some bilinguals are highly proficient in both
languages they speak, while other bilinguals clearly have a dominant or preferred
language. Therefore, when classifying bilinguals it is important to consider varying
degrees of bilingualism.
Researchers suggest that native-like proficiency in both languages, referred to as “true”
bilingualism, is rare (Cutler, Mehler, Norris, & Segui, 1992; Grosjean, 1982). One factor
to consider in defining types of bilingualism is when the two languages are acquired in
relation to each other. Simultaneous bilingualism is considered to occur when two
languages are acquired from birth or prior to one year of age (De Houwer, 2005). Cases
Gottardo, A., and Grant, A. Page 2 of 7
of pure, simultaneous bilingualism with neither language being dominant are also rare.
For sequential bilingualism, when one language is acquired following another, the age
of L2 acquisition is important (Flege, 1992). Researchers are discovering that sensitive
periods for native-like L2 acquisition occur at younger ages than previously believed.
For example, brain organization is different for L2 acquisition after 5 years of age in
contrast to before age 5, when native-like organization for language is possible (De
Houwer, 2005; Weber-Fox & Neville, 1996). Therefore, children who acquire the L2 at
school would not be considered native speakers, even if they have high levels of L2
proficiency. In older language learners (preadolescents and older), age of acquisition is
related to the learner’s ability to perceive and produce speech sounds in their second
language (Flege, 1992). Another factor related to L2 pronunciation is the frequency and
continued use of the L1.
In addition to classifying when languages are acquired in relation to each other, the
reasons why the L2 is acquired can be used to categorize bilinguals (Valdez &
Figueora, 1994). For example, elective bilinguals learn another language in a formal
setting, typically as an additional course credit at school, while continuing to use their L1
most of the time. They are also classified as “additive bilinguals” because the L2 is
learned in addition to an L1 that is maintained at a high level. Circumstantial bilinguals,
however, learn their L2 because they are required to do so to attend school or to find
work. They are usually immigrants learning the societal language. These bilinguals are
often classified as “subtractive bilinguals” because L1 skills usually decrease or are lost
in favour of the majority language, the L2. Subtractive bilingualism is particularly
common in children of immigrants.
An additional consideration in the definition of bilingualism includes the concept of
language dominance. Most bilinguals have stronger skills in one language, their
dominant language. However, their dominant language need not be their L1. In addition,
it is possible to show language dominance in one language for one domain (e.g. L1 for
home) and dominance in the other language for another domain (e.g. L2 for work).
Other terminology that is relevant to classifying bilinguals is whether or not they were
born in Canada. If not, their age of arrival is relevant. (See the previous discussion on a
related issue: age of acquisition.) In Canada, first and second generation immigrants
are the most common type of bilingual learners. Although the L1 might be the language
of the local community, it is a minority language in the larger community. In addition,
these individuals continue to be exposed to their L1 in the home, and often through
heritage language classes in an attempt to minimize L1 loss. To give a general overview
of the linguistic picture in Canada, surveys of recent immigration to Canada can be
examined (Statistics Canada, 2001). For example, between 1996 to 2001 approximately
1.2 million immigrants arrived in Canada, 46% of which moved to Toronto, 17% to
Vancouver, 12% to Montreal, and the remaining 25% of which settled in other areas of
the country. Among residents who reported speaking only one language, the majority
reported speaking only English, followed by half as many people who spoke French.
Other common L1s that are not official languages are: Chinese, Italian, German,
Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Arabic, in decreasing order of prevalence.
One way to demonstrate the differences between communities is by comparing a
Gottardo, A., and Grant, A. Page 3 of 7
smaller urban city with a larger urban centre. For example, in Kitchener, Ontario, 24% of
the population speaks a language other than English or French, but only 1% of these
people use this language as their main language at work. In comparison to Toronto,
where 47% of the population speaks a non-official language as their L1, and only 4%
use a non-official language at work. In cities such as Toronto, there may be many larger
communities that can support specific L1 groups culturally so that there is not as much
language loss.
The relative degree of proficiency in the two acquired languages has consequences for
language and cognitive skills of bilinguals. As we will note, being bilingual has certain
benefits, but it also poses some challenges. Definitions of bilingualism are relevant for
clinicians and educators because degrees of L1 and L2 proficiency and L1 and L2
language learning experiences cannot be assumed to be equal across bilingual
speakers. The cognitive differences inherent in those who speak more than one
language are also important because they can inform whether or not differences in the
performance of an individual bilingual child arise due to learning difficulties etc., or
whether they are a consequence of being bilingual.
Social and Environmental Factors
Most sequential bilinguals learn their first language in the home and their second
language in the school and/or community. In order to maintain the classification of
bilingualism, communicative competence in the L2 must be acquired and L1 proficiency
must be maintained. Pearson (2007) describes social and environmental factors that
can have an impact on whether children become bilingual, or adopt and speak only the
majority language. For example, maintaining the first language is related to the amount
of continual exposure to the first language. In families where parents only speak the L1
and where children are exposed to the minority language early and often, a greater
chance of true bilingualism exists. For example, to acquire some types of grammatical
structures exposure to the language is required for correct use (e.g. when to use “much”
versus “many”) (Gathercole, 2002). The attitudes of parents, siblings and peers toward
the minority language can add value to, or subtract value from, the language. In fact,
any way of increasing the attractiveness of the minority language (i.e., through books or
mass media) is likely to help maintain that language. In most cases, children are
naturally attracted to the majority language. Finally, a powerful source of minority
language exposure is education, specifically the provision of programs within the school
to enhance first language learning and to show that it is a valued language. In Canada,
provinces, school boards and urban centres provide support for international/ heritage
language learning programs.
Consequences and implications of bilingualism
Research conducted with bilinguals also attempts to determine how language is
organized in the brain and whether languages assist each other (positive transfer) or
interfere with each other (negative transfer). Educators, clinicians and parents are often
interested in whether children who are bilingual show advantages or disadvantages on
language skills in comparison to their monolingual peers. Research studies with adults
Gottardo, A., and Grant, A. Page 4 of 7
have found that a bilingual person’s mental dictionary, which stores word meanings and
spelling-sound information, incorporates items from all known languages (Jiang, 2004)
and that both the L1 and L2 are activated simultaneously when adults read their L1 or
L2 (Dijkstra & van Heuven, 2002).
Much of the research examining cognitive consequences of bilingualism in children has
been conducted in Canada. The Canadian immigration context, with its relatively high
proportion of middle-class and educated immigrants provides a unique opportunity to
examine the effects of bilingualism without the additional burden of poverty and low
parental educational level.
In general, L1 oral language skills are related to L2 oral language skills, where children
with strong L1 skills show better acquisition of their second language (Cummins, 1991).
However, different language skills are differentially affected in positive and negative
ways by bilingualism. Vocabulary development is typically delayed in learning a second
language, whether that language is acquired sequentially or simultaneously (August,
Carlo, Dressler & Snow, 2005). Further research on vocabulary acquisition shows that
there are specific differences in the vocabulary knowledge of L2 learners. Specifically,
breadth of vocabulary—as assessed by the number of words known, and depth of
vocabulary—the richness of the word representation, are two terms typically used to
describe differences in vocabulary knowledge. L2 groups have been identified as having
relatively more difficulty with depth of vocabulary knowledge (e.g., Feldman & Healy,
1998; Ordonez, Carlo, Snow & McLaughlin, 2002). Additionally, in a model testing L2
reading comprehension, vocabulary knowledge was especially important for improved
reading comprehension outcomes (Proctor, Carlo, August & Snow, 2006), while poor
vocabulary skills can have a negative impact on reading comprehension skills. Reading
comprehension skills in the L2 remain an area of difficulty in bilinguals for a long time
(August et al., 2005).
An additional area of difference between monolinguals and bilinguals is metalinguistic
awareness. Metalinguistic awareness is thought to be acquired differently in
monolinguals and bilinguals (see Bialystok, 2007). Metalinguistic awareness includes
the awareness of the form of language, such as the awareness of sounds (phonological
awareness), grammatical “rules” (syntactic awareness) and grammatical markers
(morphological awareness). Some studies have shown that bilingualism enhances
metalinguistic ability (Yelland, Pollard & Mercuri, 1993). However, evidence that
supports a bilingual advantage for the acquisition of phonological awareness is not
consistent, with some studies showing no differences between monolinguals and
bilinguals and other studies showing this advantage for bilinguals (Bruck & Genessee,
1995; Carvalos & Bruck, 1993). When group differences do occur, they tend to
disappear by first grade. In addition, these relationships may depend on the degree of
similarity between languages and the degree of consistency within a language. For
example, the Spanish language has a very consistent orthography, where sounds map
onto letters (phonemes to graphemes) quite readily (see Ziegler & Gosami, 2005). In
contrast, Chinese script does not map onto the level of individual sounds. One study
found higher levels of English phonological awareness for Spanish-English speakers in
comparison to Chinese-English speakers (Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005).
Gottardo, A., and Grant, A. Page 5 of 7
Research conducted on learning to read English as a third language extends these
differences in literacy skills that have been found between monolinguals and bilinguals.
For example, one study found that children who had proficiency in two languages
(Hebrew and Russian) and were learning English as a third language, outperformed
children with less proficiency in these two languages and also outperformed
monolingual children who were learning English only as an L2 on measures of
phonological awareness, nonword reading, and nonword spelling (e.g., barp, stip)
(Schwartz, Geva, Share, & Leikin, 2007). Thus, research seems to show support for the
trend that acquiring more than one language has benefits for literacy acquisition.
Schwartz et al. (2007) described this phenomenon as a form of additive multilingualism.
She also noted that in many environments, the L1 and even L2 are non-majority
languages that are not used in formal educational contexts. This situation can also be
applied to a Canadian context, where children may grow up speaking one or more other
languages at home, and are subsequently educated in English, which may or may not
be spoken at home. Specifically, middle class families might provide additional L1
enrichment opportunities in order to maintain their children’s first language skills and
associated culture (Chow, 2004).
The definition of bilingualism is more complex than a simplistic “yes/ no” categorization.
Definitions of bilingualism must include the degree of proficiency in each language and
circumstances under which each language is learned. Even outwardly simple questions
such as what it means to “know” a language must be considered. Factors that facilitate
or hinder bilingualism must be considered. In addition, being bilingual can have positive
and negative consequences for language skills. Finally, carefully defining degrees of
bilingualism in each circumstance and for each learner is important because
educational decisions depend on the accuracy of these definitions.
Published online: 2008-03-26 12:07:02
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To cite this document:
Gottardo, A., & Grant, A. (2008). Defining bilingualism. Encyclopedia of Language and
Literacy Development (pp. 1-7). London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy
Research Network. Retrieved [insert date] from
... Bilingualism is broadly defined as knowing two languages (Bialystok 2010;Gottardo and Grant 2008;Valdés and Figueroa 1994). According to this definition, bilingualism occurs on a continuum ranging from low proficiency in the L2 to native-like or near nativelike proficiency in the L2. ...
... According to this definition, bilingualism occurs on a continuum ranging from low proficiency in the L2 to native-like or near nativelike proficiency in the L2. It is apparent from the definitions that there is little agreement regarding the definition of bilingualism (Gottardo and Grant 2008). The present study used a broad definition of bilingualism and examined the role of age of acquisition in relation to L2 reading skills of learners with relatively low levels of L2 experience and proficiency. ...
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... Therefore, bilingualism and multilingualism sociocultural facts deserve to be extensively explored. Grant and Gottardo (2008) emphasize that the definition of bilingualism is complex and is influenced by multiple factors such as the age of acquisition of the second language, continued exposure to the first language, relative skill in each language and the circumstances under which each language is learned. Bilingualism of home and school is a worldwide phenomenon and as such has been dealt with rather positively in countries like Singapore, Canada, Switzerland and many more, through the introduction of systems of bilingual or multilingual education (Lambert, Genesee, Holobow, & Chartrand, 1993). ...
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The present study is an attempt to explore English vocabulary learning strategies employed by Iranian EFL undergraduate Baluch-Persian bilingual and Persian monolingual students in the University of Sistan and Baluchestan. The study utilized a between-groups research design. The participants of this study were 33 bilingual (Baluch-Persian) and 34 monolingual (Persian) students with an intermediate level of English. Their age ranged from 19 to 24 and. In order to collect the data, adapted version of Schmitt’s (1997) Vocabulary Learning Strategy Questionnaire (VLSQ) with a five-point Likert scale was administrated. Data analysis included descriptive statistics and independent samples t-test. The results indicated that EFL students use a wide range of vocabulary learning strategies. Furthermore, the findings revealed that there was no statistically significant difference between bilinguals and monolinguals regarding English VLSs. Finally, the paper ends up with a number of pedagogical implications for English teachers.
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İki dillilik dünyanın birçok ülkesinde olduğu gibi Türkiye’de de oldukça yaygındır. Ancak Türkiye’de, özellikle de sahip olduğu çok kültürlü yapıdan dolayı, doğal, kaçınılmaz kısacası farklı bir iki dillilik söz konusudur. Doğu ve Güneydoğu Anadolu Bölgelerinde bugün ana dili eğitim dilinden farklı ve çeşitli kademelerde öğretimlerine devam eden çok sayıda iki dilli öğrenci bulunmaktadır. Türkiye’de özellikle de belirtilen iki bölgedeki birçok ilde yaşayan iki dilli öğrencinin durumu daha öncelikli ve önemli olarak değerlendirilebilir. Öyle ki bu bölgelerde yaşayan öğrencilerin iki dilli olmalarından kaynaklı bir takım dezavantajların ve sorunların olduğu bilinmektedir. Ortaya çıkan sorunların okul hayatı boyunca daha açık bir şekilde kendini gösterdiği söylenebilir. İki dilli öğrencilerin yaşadıkları dilsel dezavantajların okumaya, okuduğunu anlamaya, devamlılık durumuna ve nihayetinde akademik başarıya olumsuz bir etkide bulunması kaçınılmaz hale gelmektedir. İkinci dil edinimindeki öğrencilerin yaşadıkları sorunlara kaynaklık eden birçok faktörün etkili olduğu ve bunların birçok farklı olumsuz sonuçlar yarattığı bilinmektedir. Türkiye’de yaşayan iki dilli öğrencilerin ikinci dil edinimi üzerinde etkili olan faktörlerin ve bunların yarattığı birtakım sonuçların tartışılmasına ihtiyaç duyulmaktadır. Alan yazında ikinci dil ediniminde genel anlamda etkili olduğu düşünülen faktörler, Türkiye’deki iki dilli öğrencilerle ilişkilendirilerek açıklanmaya çalışılmıştır.
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Türkiye’de ana dili eğitim dilinden farklı olan iki dilli öğrenciler bulunmaktadır. Bu öğrenciler gündelik hayatlarında ana dillerini özgürce kullanabilmektedirler. Buna karşın eğitim sürecinde ana dilde (Türkçe) eğitim ile tanıştıklarında çoğu zaman zorlanmaktadırlar. Yaşanan zorlukların sonucunda bir takım sorunların ortaya çıktığını belirtmek gerekir. Iki dilli öğrencilerde görülen sorunların okuma etrafında yoğunlaştığnı söyleyebiliriz. Böyle bir durumda iki dilli öğrencilerde kaygı da kaçınılmaz hale gelmektedir. Bu çalışmanın amacı; ana dili eğitim dilinden farklı iki dilli ortaokul 5, 6, 7 ve 8. sınıf öğrencilerinin okuma kaygılarının; cinsiyet, sınıf seviyesi ve sosyoekonomik düzey değişkenlerine göre farklılaşıp farklılaşmadığını incelemektir. Araştırmaya Van ilinden ölçüt örnekleme yolu ile seçilen okullardan iki dilli 325 (kız 146, erkek 179) öğrenci katılmıştır. Araştırmada iki dilli ortaokul öğrencilerinin okuma kaygılarını belirlemek için Çeliktürk ve Yamaç (2015) tarafından geliştirilen ‘Okuma Kaygısı Ölçeği’ kullanılmıştır. Araştırma sonuçlarına göre, öğrencilerin Okuma Kaygıları Ölçeği’nin bütününe ilişkin olarak hesaplanan Cronbach’s alpha katsayısı 0.95 olarak bulunmuştur. Çalışma sonunda elde edilen bulgular, kız öğrenciler ile erkek öğrencilerin okumaya yönelik kaygı düzeylerinin benzer düzeyde olduğunu göstermiştir. 5. sınıf öğrencilerinin de yine okumaya yönelik kaygı düzeylerinin daha düşük düzeyde olduğu sonucuna varılmıştır. Yani sınıf seviyesi yükseldikçe iki dilli öğrencilerde okuma kaygı düzeyi de yükselmektedir. Ayrıca sosyoekonomik düzey kötü oldukça öğrencilerin okumaya yönelik kaygılarının da yüksek olduğu sonucu ortaya çıkmıştır.
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Esta investigación se enfoca hacia el uso del método de análisis histórico, el análisis y la síntesis para el enjuiciamiento de las limitaciones o beneficios de una educación bilingüe en los niños de cuatro años de origen hispano, para interactuar lingüística y culturalmente en el proceso de enseñanza aprendizaje en el prekindergarten en Estados Unidos de América. Uno de cada cinco de los escolares enrolados en la escuela pública de ese país son latinos, convirtiéndose en el grupo más grande de minorías. Por eso, actualmente entre los principales temas acerca de cómo mejorar el rendimiento de los estudiantes cuya segunda lengua es el inglés, está determinar si la Educación Bilingüe sirve para mejorar la posibilidad educativa y cultural de la población hispana. Palabras claves: actividades preescolares, comunicación, formación lingüística, habilidades interculturales, interacción cultural.
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The present study compared the influence of bi-literate bilingualism versus mono-literate bilingualism on the development of literary skills in English as L3. Two main predictions were made. First, it was predicted that Russian (L1) lit-eracy would benefit decoding and spelling acquisition in English (L3), that is, bi-literate bilingualism would be superior to mono-literate bilingualism. Second, it was hypothesized that there would be positive transfer of phonological process-ing skills from L1 Russian to L3 English even in the context of two linguistically and orthographically distinct languages. The sample of 107 11-year-old children from Haifa, Israel, were divided into three groups matched in age, gender, social-economic level, verbal and non-verbal IQ: bi-literate bilinguals, mono-literate bilinguals and mono-literate monolinguals. The research was conducted in two stages. In the first stage a wide range of linguistic, meta-linguistic, cogni-tive and literacy tasks in Hebrew (L2) and in Russian (L1) were administered. In the second stage linguistic, meta-linguistic and literacy skills in English (L3) were assessed. The results demonstrated that bi-literate bilinguals outperformed mono-literate bilingual and mono-lingual children on a number of basic literacy measures (phoneme deletion and analysis, pseudoword decoding and spelling) in English (L3). Even after controlling for (L2) Hebrew reading accuracy, bi-lit-eracy independently explained 16% of the variance in English reading accuracy among Russian-Hebrew fifth grade bilinguals. Keywords: bi-literacy, bilingualism, multi-literacy, English as L3 literacy acquisition, literacy in Russian (L1) and in English (L3), Hebrew (L2) non-additive context, language, meta-linguistic awareness, phonological awareness, cross-linguistic transfer
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This study explored a holistic model of English reading comprehension among a sample of 135 Spanish-English bilingual Latina and Latino 4th-grade students This model took into account Spanish language reading skills and language of initial literacy instruction. Controlling for language of instruction, English decoding skill, and English oral language proficiency, the authors explored the effects of Spanish language alphabetic knowledge, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and listening comprehension on English reading comprehension. Results revealed a significant main effect for Spanish vocabulary knowledge and an interaction between Spanish vocabulary and English fluency, such that faster English readers benefited more from Spanish vocabulary knowledge than their less fluent counterparts. This study demonstrates the existence of literary skills transfer from the 1st to the 2nd language, as well as limits on such transfer. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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In this study, the authors examined the relationship between paradigmatic and syntagmatic word knowledge. The authors used familiar concrete nouns administered in Spanish and English to 88 bilingual 4th and 5th graders. Students were tested on the ability to provide superordinates, communicatively adequate definitions, and rich object descriptions. Producing superordinates in Spanish was a reliable predictor of the same skill in English, while controlling for breadth of vocabulary knowledge in each language. The relationship between communicative skills in Spanish and English was evident only when English and Spanish breadth of vocabulary knowledge were controlled. Communicative adequacy of definitions and rich descriptions of concrete nouns depended more on specific vocabulary knowledge in English than on transfer. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
This book is a collection of papers that explore the ways in which bilingual children cope with two language systems. The papers address issues in linguistics, psychology, and education bearing on the abilities that bilingual children use to understand language, to perform highly specialised operations with language, and to function in school settings. All of the papers provide detailed analysis about how specific problems are solved, how bilingualism influences those solutions, and how the social context affects the process. Finally, the implications of these findings for policy-setting and the development of bilingual education programmes are explored. This will be an important and useful volume at the forefront of topical research in an area which is exciting increasing interest among linguists and cognitive scientists.
Changes in several postnatal maturational processes during neural development have been implicated as potential mechanisms underlying critical period phenomena. Lenneberg hypothesized that maturational processes similar to those that govern sensory and motor development may also constrain capabilities for normal language acquisition. Our goal, using a bilingual model, was to investigate the hypothesis that maturational constraints may have different effects upon the development of the functional specializations of distinct sub within language. Subjects were 61 adult Chinese/English bilinguals who were exposed to English at different points in development: 13, 46, 710, 1113, and after 16 years of age. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and behavioral responses were obtained as subjects read sentences that included semantic anomalies, three types of syntactic violations (phrase structure, specificity constraint, and subjacency constraint), and their controls. The accuracy in judging the grammaticality for the different types of syntactic rules and their associated ERPs was affected by delays in second language exposure as short as 13 years. By comparison the N400 response and the judgment accuracies in detecting semantic anomalies were altered only in subjects who were exposed to English after 1113 and 16 years of age, respectively. Further, the type of changes occurring in ERPs with delays in exposure were qualitatively different for semantic and syntactic processing. All groups displayed a significant N400 effect in response to semantic anomalies, however, the peak latencies of the N400 elicited in bilinguals who were exposed to English between 1113 and >16 years occurred later, suggesting a slight slowing in processing. For syntactic processing. the ERP differences associated with delays in exposure to English were observed in the morphology and distribution of components. Our findings are consistent with the view that maturational changes significantly constrain the development of the neural systems that are relevant for language and, further, that subsystems specialized for processing different aspects of language display different sensitive periods.