Bilinguals’ Existing Languages Benefit Vocabulary Learning in a Third Language

James Bartolotti*, Viorica Marian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Learning a new language involves substantial vocabulary acquisition. Learners can accelerate this process by relying on words with native-language overlap, such as cognates. For bilingual third language learners, it is necessary to determine how their two existing languages interact during novel language learning. A scaffolding account predicts transfer from either language for individual words, whereas an accumulation account predicts cumulative transfer from both languages. To compare these accounts, 20 English-German bilingual adults were taught an artificial language containing 48 novel written words that varied orthogonally in English and German wordlikeness (neighborhood size and orthotactic probability). Wordlikeness in each language improved word production accuracy, and similarity to one language provided the same benefit as dual-language overlap. In addition, bilinguals’ memory for novel words was affected by the statistical distributions of letters in the novel language. Results indicate that bilinguals utilize both languages during third language acquisition, supporting a scaffolding learning model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)110-140
Number of pages31
JournalLanguage Learning
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • bilingualism
  • neighborhood size
  • orthotactic probability
  • third language acquisition
  • vocabulary learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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