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Predictors of listening comprehension skills in bilingual children

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Julia Heine.

There will be a tea reception from 4:30pm.

Like many other English-speaking countries, the UK is becoming an ever more linguistically diverse society. In England alone in January 2018 21.2% of children entering primary school were classified as having English as an Additional Language (EAL) and are bilingual to some extent. For these young bilinguals English is the only medium of instruction, and it is the language in which their language and literacy outcomes are formally assessed. Evidence that English proficiency is a strong predictor of academic success in this population is now increasingly being recognised. It is therefore imperative to know more about what, in turn, predicts bilingual children’s language and literacy proficiency, not only in terms of concurrent relationships at a given time point, but from a longitudinal perspective. In this talk will present the findings of a longitudinal study on the contribution of memory, attention, lexical and grammatical skills, and non-verbal inferencing to bilingual learners’ ability to make local and global inferences from oral texts.

Methods: 94 EAL learners with 26 different home languages were recruited in English schools (mean age 5;8). Children were assessed twice over the school year. At T1 we assessed their listening comprehension, memory skills, vocabulary breadth and depth, morpho-syntax, comprehension monitoring and non-verbal inferencing skills. Cumulative amount of English input was measured through a parental questionnaire at T1. A similar testing procedure was followed at T2. The listening comprehension task included three short stories with two literal questions, three questions on local inferences and three on global inferences.

Results: At both time points accuracy was significantly greater for text-connecting local inferences than for global inferences requiring reliance on world knowledge. Global and local inferences accuracy at T2 was predicted by vocabulary depth and morpho-syntax at T1. When listening comprehension at T1 was entered as a mediator in the model, morpho-syntax at T1 still directly predicted a significant amount of variance in listening comprehension at T2, as well as an indirect effect through listening comprehension at T1. English input did not directly predict listening comprehension, at either times, but explained a significant amount of variance in vocabulary depth and morpho-syntax.

Conclusions: Bilingual children find it easier to solve local than global inferences, as has been previously found for monolinguals. The results further confirm the importance of both vocabulary and grammar for listening comprehension, and suggest that vocabulary depth might be a better predictor of inferencing than breadth. Even when controlling for listening comprehension at T1, morpho-syntax continued to predict listening comprehension six months later, while cumulative English input only influenced comprehension indirectly via vocabulary and morpho-syntax.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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