Language and Literacy Development in Early Dual-Language Learners

August 18-19, 2016


Child Development and Behavior Branch (CDBB), Division of Extramural Research (DER), NICHD; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD); NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR)


NIH Neuroscience Center, 6001 Executive Blvd., Rockville, MD



About one of every five people ages 5 years and older in the United States speaks a language other than English in the home. Children who are learning English in addition to a language spoken at home are known as dual language learners (DLLs). Increasing understanding of typical and atypical language and literacy development in DLLs is critical for improving reading skills and academic success in this population, and for differentiating language impairment from typical language variation. Little is known, however, about how best to distinguish language variation from impairment or how to promote literacy and learning in DLLs.

Recognizing this need, staff from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), developed a scientific workshop, Language and Literacy Development in Early Dual Language Learners, in consultation with the meeting chairpersons.

The workshop consisted of formal presentations concerning variability in bilingual development, assessment and intervention, and neurocognitive development; in-depth discussions; and separate sessions aimed at identifying research gaps and opportunities. 

Research Gaps and Opportunities

A number of research questions, reflecting needs and potential opportunities, were developed at the workshop. These include:

  1. What are the appropriate comparison groups for DLLs?
  2. Are there markers of language disorders that apply across diverse language learning contexts?
  3. How are patterns of language development affected by modality (e.g., sign, print)?
  4. How does language input predict language and literacy outcomes? How do source, quantity, and quality of input modulate these relationships?
  5. How does context variability (e.g., social, emotional, political, economic, educational and cultural variability) affect language in DLLs?
  6. How are divergent patterns of dual language acquisition (e.g., language loss, language attrition, and incomplete acquisition) differentiated from language impairment?
  7. What are the contexts that enable active learning mechanisms in DLLs?
  8. What skills between birth and age 5 are predictive of literacy success?
  9. What transfers between languages in DLLs? Does existing knowledge boost, inhibit, or have no effect on development in another language?
  10. What are the most effective forms of literacy and language instruction for L1 (native language) and L2 (second language) in orthographically transparent and opaque languages?
  11. How do we improve dissemination and implementation of best practices with DLLs to clinical and educational audiences?
  12. What is the relationship between dual language learning and plasticity during development?
  13. Does exposure to bilingual and multilingual contexts enhance responsiveness to treatment?
  14. How do we enhance the accuracy and validity of DLL assessment, and how do we measure improvement of assessment methods?
  15. How does exposure to dual language learning affect a child’s brain?
  16. What are the biomarkers of language development in DLLs?
  17. How do adolescent DLLs adapt to an L2 environment and maintain L1?

Workshop participants identified these additional research needs:

  • Short-term studies (experimental, interventions, etc.). For example, means of “stressing” or challenging bilingual systems.
  • Brain imaging databases for DLLs.
  • Inclusion of DLLs in research, which may involve use of a language history questionnaire in the research protocol.
  • Training to inform researchers about current work in the field and stimulate cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Future Directions

NICHD and NIDCD will use the information from the workshop in planning future activities. In addition, both institutes welcome research applications focused on the topics, questions, and opportunities discussed at the workshop.

More Information


Ruben Alvarez, Ed.D.
Language, Bilingualism, & Biliteracy Research Program Director, CDBB, NICHD

Please note: Views expressed during NICHD-sponsored events do not necessarily reflect the opinions or the official positions of NICHD, NIH, or HHS.
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