Learning words in a new language: The effect of language experience on vocabulary acquisition and inhibitory control

Open Access
Bogulski, Cari Anne
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
August 19, 2009
Committee Members:
  • Judith Fran Kroll, Thesis Advisor
  • language acquisition
  • bilingual
  • vocabulary
  • cognition
  • inhibitory control
Although bilinguals have been shown to possess superior abilities in the domain of executive function and inhibitory control (e.g., Bialystok et al., 2004; Colzato et al., 2008; Costa et al., 2008), there is evidence for a bilingual disadvantage in the realm of vocabulary size and speed of lexical access (e.g., Bialystok, 2005; Gollan et al., 2008). The few previous studies that have investigated vocabulary learning in monolinguals vs. bilinguals have reported a clear advantage for bilinguals (e.g., Kaushanskaya, 2007; van Hell & Mahn, 1997), a result that is somewhat at odds with the conclusion that lexical knowledge and retrieval is compromised in the presence of more than a single language. The current study examined this apparent paradox in a group of adults learning new vocabulary that was equally unfamiliar to monolingual and bilingual participants. Sixty-four Dutch words were taught to three groups of participants with different language backgrounds: native English speakers who were functionally monolingual, native English speakers who had learned Spanish as their second language (L2), and Mandarin Chinese speakers who had learned English as their second language (L2). The words were either Dutch-English cognates (hotel in Dutch means "hotel" in English), Dutch-English false cognates (room in Dutch means "cream" in English), or unambiguous Dutch control words with no overt orthographic or phonological relationship to English. In the first session, participants studied the Dutch words twice and were subsequently given tests of translation recognition. In a second session several days later, participants studied the training set a third time, and were given a Dutch lexical decision task in which they had to respond 'yes' if the item was a Dutch word. Participants then came in for a third and final session several weeks later to repeat this same test of Dutch lexical decision. Results from the tests of translation recognition—which were administered just after the training phase—demonstrated that native language (i.e., English) was a better predictor of faster and more accurate performance than bilingualism. This suggests that for initial tests in foreign-language learning, learning of the unfamiliar language via one’s L1 rather than one’s L2 predicts success. In the first test of Dutch lexical decision, few differences existed between the groups in terms of accuracy, although the cognates were the most accurate word type for all participants, and speed only differed for the Chinese-English bilinguals, who were slower overall. At the second test of Dutch lexical decision, however, both bilingual groups demonstrated an advantage in retention of the words, which was reflected in their accuracy performance. These results provide additional support for the notion that bilinguals as experienced language learners have an advantage over monolinguals when learning new words in an unfamiliar language. The implications of these findings for claims about the advantages and disadvantages of bilingualism for lexical performance are discussed, as well as the possibility of both a general and a specific bilingual advantage in foreign-language learning, depending on the time of test.