Semantic Difficulty for Bilingual Children: Effects of Age, Language Exposure, and Language Ability

Stephanie McMillen, Nahar Albudoor, Elizabeth D. Peña, Lisa M. Bedore

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Semantic tasks evaluate dimensions of children’s lexical-semantic knowledge. However, the relative ease of semantic task completion depends on individual differences in developmental and language experience factors. The purpose of this study was to evaluate how language experience and language ability impact semantic task difficulty in English for school-age Spanish–English bilingual children with and without developmental language disorder (DLD). Method: Participants included 232 Spanish–English bilingual children in second through fifth grade with (n = 35) and without (n = 197) DLD. Data included chil-dren’s performance on the English Semantics subtest of the Bilingual English– Spanish Assessment—Middle Extension Field Test Version (BESA-ME), age of English acquisition, and percent English language exposure. Task difficulty, a measurement of the relative ease of task completion, was calculated for six semantic task types included on the BESA-ME. Multilevel regression modeling was conducted to estimate longitudinal growth trajectories for each semantic task type. Results: Results showed that language ability and grade level drive semantic task difficulty for all task types, and children with DLD experienced greater difficulty on all task types compared to their typically developing peers. Longitudi-nally, semantic task difficulty decreased for all children, regardless of language ability, indicating that semantic task types became easier over time. While children made gains on all semantic tasks, the growth rate of task difficulty was not equal across task types, where some task types showed slower growth compared with others. English language exposure emerged as a significant pre-dictor of semantic task difficulty while age of acquisition was not a significant factor. Conclusions: This study clarifies developmental profiles of lexical-semantic performance in bilingual children with and without DLD and supports clinical decision-making regarding children’s English language learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-657
Number of pages13
JournalAmerican journal of speech-language pathology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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