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How Does Bilingualism Affect Children’s Narrative Abilities?

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The study of bilingualism consists of 2 broad aspects – cognitive and social. Within cognitive aspects, one can study how bilingualism is able to influence brain development and behavioral patterns. A child’s narrative abilities depends on his/her brain development. In turn, this child’s narrative abilities will shape how s/he is in society. The 4 basic skills needed in order to access one’s language proficiency are “listening, speaking, reading and writing” (cite). These 4 elements will be discussed in understanding how narrative abilities are developed.

Narrative abilities in children can be determined by “story generation/telling, story retelling, or telling a story after listening to a model story” (Gagarina et al., 2016, p.12). These methods may or may not be used for all studies.

This paper will summarize and analyze the research questions, methodologies, findings and results of three different research papers on the different effects bilingualism has on a child’s narrative abilities. This paper will generalize 2 different effects – a positive effect as explained by Rodina (2017) and Roch et al. (2016), and a negative effect as explained by Uccelli & Paez (2007).

Literature Review

Summary of Rodina (2017)

The general aim of the study was to examine the narrative development of Norwegian-Russian children. To do so, three goals were set. Firstly, they wanted to examine and produce a relationship between the 2 narrative discourse competencies (macrostructure and microstructure). Secondly, they wanted to compare narrative abilities of Norwegian-Russian children from other simultaneous bilingual children. Thirdly, they wanted to see how narrative discourse competencies of majority or minority languages are affected by language exposure.

MAIN (Multilingual Assessment Instrument for Narratives) is a methodology used to assess bilinguals.

Hence, Rodina predicted that macrostructure (structure of story) will be the same for both monolinguals and bilinguals, and between Norwegian and Russian for the bilinguals. At the same time, she predicts that microstructure (narrative productivity) of bilinguals will be influenced by exposure.


This research study engaged a total of 48 pre-school children. There 16 participants in each group. There were 3 groups: the simultaneous Norwegian-Russian bilinguals, the Norwegian-speaking monolinguals and lastly Russian-speaking monolinguals. Within these 3 groups, all bilinguals were Norwegian by birth and lived in middle-class homes. The children who had Russian as a first language also came from families of a similar financial status.

The MAIN was utilized to evaluate narrative ability. More specifically, comprehension and production were examined. To do this, the comprehension assignment was done before the production assignment. The children were required to listen to a story from a speaker while looking a set of six colour pictures. Afterwards, they were given 10 comprehension questions, and asked to choose a story out of three envelopes to narrate. They were not allowed to show the pictures.


The outcomes of the experiment were discussed by Rodina (2017) in 4 segments. In terms of the associations between narrative measures, there were no differences and correlations between bilinguals and monolinguals in Norwegian. However, in Russian, there were significant differences and correlations.

In terms of the individual results for bilinguals, Rodina focused on MLU, which provides information regarding a child’s linguistic proficiency, developmental stage and scores in production and comprehension. She found that these three measures were higher in Norwegian than in Russian.

In terms of narrative macrostructure, Rodina examined the Setting (S), Initiating (I), Goal (G), Attempt (A), Outcome (O) and Result (R) components included in production of stories by each child. She found that bilinguals had less AO and GAO sequences in Russian than Norwegian. These bilinguals had less AO and GAO sequences in Russian than Russian monolinguals and relatively similar AO and GAO sequences as Norwegian monolinguals.

In terms of narrative microstructure, the amount of discourse connectives and complex sentences were the same in both Norwegian and Russian for bilinguals and monolinguals. A point to note here is the higher number of errors produced by bilinguals in Russian than in Norwegian. These errors were similar for monolinguals in both Russian and Norwegian respectively.


Rodina (2017) surmised her study in 2 broad components. In terms of macrostructure, for both monolinguals and bilinguals, narrative comprehension was better than production. They are unable to provide more details regarding the stories they tell. She links this to the Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis which explains that cross-linguistically, there are transferrable surface and underlying proficiencies on cognitive aspects of language. On the other hand, comprehension scored much higher scores during the study. There were no differences between the monolinguals and bilinguals.

In terms of microstructure, the linguistic ability of the children could not be derived accurately. This was because microstructure focuses on “lexicon, morphology, syntax and discourse” and focuses on linguistic proficiency (Rodina, 2017, p. 632).

To sum up, this study provides proof for the Linguistics Interdependence Hypothesis proposed by Cummins’ (1978). The Norwegian-Russian bilingual children were able to comprehend and create a story equivalently well in both Norwegian and Russian respectively. This is similar to the narrative development of other bilingual children such as Swedish-English, Russian-German and Finnish-Swedish children.

Nonetheless, one point to note is that the status of a language can affect a bilingual’s narrative ability. For instance, as Rodina noted, if the language studied is a minority language, a bilingual will be affected in narrating.

Summary of Roch et al. (2016)

The authors’ main aim of conducting this research was to investigate the narrative abilities of developing Italian-English sequential bilinguals. They wanted to understand how age, language and task can affect these abilities. More specifically, they wanted to see how the macrostructure of these children’s stories and comprehension of implied story information were affected.

Similar to Rodina’s work (2017), these authors used the MAIN during this experiment, through two different tasks – fictional story telling and sequencing pictures. Through these tasks, they were predicting six events. Firstly, they predicted that narrative production would develop from preschool to first grade for both monolinguals and bilinguals. Secondly, they predicted that narrative comprehension would develop in the bilingual children. Thirdly, they predicted that the bilingual children would perform better in Italian for both narrative production and comprehension. Fourth, they predicted that amongst bilinguals, narrative production in their L1 would correlate with their L2 when they reach first grade. Fifth, they predicted that for narrative production, all the children will perform better in story retelling (task one) than retelling (task two). Lastly, they predicted that there will be associations between narrative production and comprehension.


62 Italian-English bilingual children were selected for this study. They were from various English international schools in northeastern Italy. They were from families with middle to high socio-economic status, and were exposed to English at school daily, for around 8 hours. They took the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) in Italian and in English. The results showed that the children had age-appropriate vocabulary in both languages.

Roch et al. (2016) considered their testing, coding and scoring, transcription and coding reliability as well as their analytic plan while conducting this study.

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In terms of testing, four picture sets containing the same story structure were shown to the children. These pictures did not contain any words. Two of the pictures were in Italian and the other two were in English. Within these two pictures for each language, one picture was used for storytelling and the other was used for story retelling. Afterwards, nine comprehension questions were asked to test the children’s understanding of the goals and mental states of the characters in the stories.

In terms of scoring and transcription, the production task was documented using a digital audio recorder. Subsequently, the MAIN rubric was used to transcribe and calculate the scores of each child’s production and comprehension task. This was carried out by two student assistants who were fluent in both languages.

In terms of planning, the authors used the PPVT to measure the receptive vocabulary scores of the children. They compared these scores between L1 and L2 to study the possible variations in proficiency. They used the ANOVA (Analysis of Variance) to compare the function of tasks measuring narrative competence in both languages. The Chi-Square test was used as well, to evaluate if age and language would affect the level of macrostructural complexity of the two tasks. They also used a Pearson Correlation Matrix to study narrative production between the two tasks and between the two languages.


The ANOVA test showed that there was a significant effect on how many macrostructure components were produced. These components are group, task, and language. The test also showed that there all these elements were significant in terms of mean number of mental state terms. The test finally proved that the effect these components had on comprehension scores were significant.

The Chi-Square test revealed that in both Italian and English, the narratives of older children had the same level of macrostructural complexity in both tasks. However, for younger children, the complexity was higher in the L1 than in the L2 in both tasks.

The Pearson Correlation Matrix that was performed at the end showed differences between the younger and older children. For younger children, there was no significant correlation between narrative abilities and the two tasks in Italian. There was also only a correlation between these abilities and task two (retelling), in English. For the older children, there were significant positive correlations between measures of narrative production and both tasks in both languages.


Roch et al. (2016) concluded 3 things. Firstly, there is differences in developmental changes in children’s narrative competencies of different ages. Younger children produce less complex and complete narratives. They deduce that a child’s development in narrative skills could be due to his/her exposure to formal literacy practices when they attend school. Secondly, there were differences cross-linguistically. The correlation between Italian and English was negative for the younger group of children, and positive for the older group of children. Thirdly, to assess narrative competence, different methodological paradigms were used. Hence, there were different results, due to differences in task difficulty and skills involved in each task.

The findings convey that both narrative production and comprehension are affected when different elicitation methods are used. This is seen through the facilitating effect when all the children (in both languages) took part in the story retelling task. The findings also show that the developmental changes of children varied depending on the ages of the children. Nonetheless, I argue that Roch et al. has provided significant evidence to prove that bilingualism can bring benefits to a child’s narrative ability.

Summary of Uccelli & Paez (2007)

The two researchers conducted this study to analyze the associations between oral vocabulary and narrative skills of Spanish-English bilinguals. This was to extend current research on developmental patterns of oral skills. They had 3 questions that they wished to answer. Firstly, they aimed to find the skills needed for vocabulary, narrative productivity and quality in both languages, and how these skills evolved from kindergarten to first grade. Secondly, they wanted to know how these skills were linked with one another in one language, and between languages. Thirdly, they aimed to find the oral language measure that would enable them to gauge first grade narrative quality in English and Spanish.


24 Spanish-English bilingual children who came from families with low socioeconomic status were chosen to participate in this study. They were not physically or emotionally impaired and did not have learning disabilities. When they were chosen, they were 4 years old, and were prepared to enroll into kindergarten the year after they were chosen. They were tested twice. Firstly in ‘Time 1’ (end of kindergarten) and secondly in ‘Time 2’ (end of first grade)

In both ‘Time’s, the children took part in a 45-minute one-on-one assessment with two teams of assessors who were native speakers in English and Spanish respectively. English and Spanish were accessed on separate days, for both ‘Time’s. The main assignment that was given to the children was the narrative task. This required the children to look at pictures and afterwards, explain to the assessors what happened in the pictures. These pictures showed a main story that allowed room for ambiguity so that the children could spend time to elaborate more on their narrations.

The children’s narratives were recorded using a tape and transcribed using the CHAT convention by CHILDES (Child Language Data Exchange System).

There were three oral language measures. Firstly, to measure expressive vocabulary, the participants had to match pictures with words, and had to express a word when they were shown a picture. For narrative productivity, the researchers used TDW (Total number of Different Words) and TNW (Total Number of Words). For narrative quality, they used a total NQ (Narrative Quality) score. This score consisted of story and language scores.


In terms of vocabulary, the bilinguals had lower average scores than monolingual norms at both Time 1 and 2, in both languages. Many bilinguals scored low in vocabulary from kindergarten to first grade. In terms of narrative skills, generally, the bilinguals in first grade code-switched more often than those in kindergarten. Also, there was more code switching from Spanish to English, than from English to Spanish. Uccelli & Paez (2017) found that there was a “positive, moderate association” (p. 230) between narrative quality and vocabulary for both languages at both Time 1 and 2. A child who knew more English words would score higher in English narrative quality.

In terms of narrative productivity, there were only cross-language associations for bilinguals who were in first grade. The researchers found that the bilinguals who scored higher in total narrative quality in a given language would also score higher in another language.


From the results of this study, it can be briefly concluded that there were associations between vocabulary and narrative skills in English and Spanish. However, the researchers note that these two oral language measures can develop at varying rates. They also concluded that narrative productivity was unable to assist them in examining the developmental changes in children. This was because they could not make effective use of TDW and TNW.

In this study, the researchers not only associated changes in narrative abilities to be affected by bilingualism. They also took into consideration the influence of socioeconomic status. They pointed out that “delays in lexical development cannot be interpreted solely as a consequence of bilingualism, but also as a result of the interaction between a bilingual context and the challenges faced by an environment if economic hardships and low levels of parental education” (p. 232). Hence, I argue that although this research paper provided insights as to how bilingualism might not benefit narrative abilities of children to a large extent, bilingualism has a certain level of influence. Additionally, even though these researchers have proven that not all narrative skills can improve as a result of bilingualism, there are still other narrative skills that can experience a positive change.


Rodina (2017) and Roch et al. (2016) have surmised that bilingualism can improve a child’s narrative abilities. Even though Uccelli & Paez (2007) have argued against this claim, they do have results that show that there are some children that do experience better narrative abilities.

Although these 3 papers differ greatly in terms of their research emphasis and methodology, they have a central aim, and that is to unravel how bilingualism affects a child’s narrative abilities. These 3 research articles have brought forth a general claim – children’s narrative abilities are in a positive relationship with bilingualism. Bilingualism enhances a child’s narrative abilities.

However, we must take note that these research articles do not provide strong evidence for the effect on narrative abilities on every child in the world. There has to be more research done to back up these claims from these scholars. Future research can focus on how other cognitive reasons could affect narrative abilities as well. This includes testing the narrative abilities of monolinguals, or polyglots. If these groups of children are able to provide similar results, it could be a starting point for future debates and discussions on how narrative abilities are truly influenced. Another possible research area could be in understanding how social factors such as household environment, media exposure, socio-economic status and even government intervention could impact narrative abilities of children.

Furthermore, as explained by Author, many investigations conducted in this field “produce correlations – and correlation need not imply causation” (cite). There are challenges involved when understanding whether the relationship between bilingualism and cognitive development is positive or negative. With improvements in technology and advancements in research methodologies, more participants can be involved in future studies, to strengthen arguments and claims.

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How Does Bilingualism Affect Children’s Narrative Abilities? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
“How Does Bilingualism Affect Children’s Narrative Abilities?” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
How Does Bilingualism Affect Children’s Narrative Abilities? [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 May 2023].
How Does Bilingualism Affect Children’s Narrative Abilities? [Internet] Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 May 29]. Available from:
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