The Acquisition of Ser and Estar Distinctions in Spanish/English Bilingual Children

Nancy J Reyes, Purdue University


The current study examines the acquisition of the Spanish copula verbs ser and estar by seventeen (n=17) simultaneous Spanish-English bilingual children, aged 7;3 to 13;9 years (M=9;1), born and raised in the United States. Twenty (n=20) monolingual children from Mexico, aged 5;0 to 15;4 years (M=9;5), served as control baseline. In contrast to English, Spanish has two copular verbs that can be found in both complimentary distribution and in contrastive contexts. The acquisition of ser/ estar alternation has been found to be difficult for L2 learners and bilingual children. Previous research on bilingual children’s acquisition of ser and estar specifically has revealed an early onset of the oral production of these verbs—by 3;0 years of age—that is similar to, although not congruent to the production of monolingual children (Silva-Corvalan & Montanari, 2008). The present study explores the extent to which bilingual children acquire ser/ estar target-like distinctions, and the role of cross-linguistic influence and age effects in this process. An Elicited Production Task modeled after Schmitt & Miller (2007) and Cuza & Guijarro-Fuentes (2017) was conducted to test the distinctions of ser and estar in pre-adjectival conditions and in event locatives. Results showed that both bilingual and monolingual children overwhelmingly selected estar where estar is required in adjectival contexts. The bilingual children further overextended estar in both adjectival contexts and event locatives where ser is required. While the monolingual children selected ser in ser-required contexts more often than the bilingual children, their production was far from target-like and approximated free variation. An individual analysis did not reveal either cross-linguistic influence or age effects in the bilingual children’s elicited production. Variable and reduced input are posited as causative factors in these results.




Cuza-Blanco, Purdue University.

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