Latino Studies Child Language Acquisition
Alison Sparks, Diana Leyva
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0012


The study of language acquisition in children growing up in Latino families is a burgeoning field of research found in work that spans the social-science disciplines. These studies employ a broad range of methodologies and explore the linguistic, psychological, and sociocultural contexts of language learning. Latino children are members of the largest minority group within the United States. Some Latino children descend from the indigenous people who lived in North America before the colonial explorations, while others trace their roots to the many Spanish-speaking countries of the world. They grow up in a complex linguistic and cultural mix, making them a fascinating group of children for the study of language acquisition. Thus, Latino children are an important source for understanding language lived in rich cultural-linguistic environments, which is increasingly the norm for child development in societies throughout the world. An important challenge for researchers who work on language acquisition among Latino children is to understand the cognitive-linguistic processes that may be universally or specifically observed in bilingual children learning two languages from an early age. Another area of research explores the sociolinguistic world of children who grow up in Latino families, examining their unique ways of learning to communicate in a mélange of linguistic codes. An important piece of this research has been to understand the developmental pathways for literacy learning in children who are English-language learners. Latino children, who represent almost a quarter of all children enrolled in public schools, are at high risk for academic problems, beginning in the early years of formal schooling. Understanding the complex processes of oral and written language development is especially important for educators, researchers, and policymakers who are seeking to improve this group’s academic success at all levels of education in the United States. The work included here not only focuses on English- and Spanish-speaking populations within the United States and its territories, but it also includes work with Spanish-speaking families in other countries of the world. Although this series defines Latinos as people in the United States who are members of Spanish-speaking communities and cultures living in the United States, studies that compare the development of Spanish-speaking children in the United States to their peers in Latin America or Spain add an important comparative element to this research and are included here to highlight the truly global perspective afforded to us by studying language acquisition from the Latino perspective. Finally, in this work we do not separate the research into topic headings because many of the studies cut across organizational themes. For instance, there is no separate section on bilingualism, because the experience of the bilingual is such a fundamental part of Latino life that work on this topic appears in every section of the bibliography.

General Overviews

These works were selected as introductory texts for the study of language acquisition in Latino communities. Goldstein 2012 provides an outstanding introduction to language development and language disorders in bilingual, Spanish-English-speaking children, while Garcia, et al. 2007 examines the development of literacy. McCabe, et al. 2008 explores the development of narrative discourse in Latino communities throughout the Americas. Shiro, et al. 2001 surveys research on monolingual Spanish speakers throughout the world, beginning in the 1970s. Zentella 1997 systematically documents and analyzes the use of Spanglish in the everyday lives of Latino families. These works serve as broad starting points but also include detailed investigations of particular topics in the field.

  • García, Eugene E., and Bryant Jensen. “Language Development and Early Education of Young Hispanic Children in the United States.” In Contemporary Perspectives on Language and Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood Education. Edited by Olivia N. Saracho and Bernard Spodek, 43–64. Contemporary Perspectives in Early Childhood Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2010.

    This book chapter reviews research on language development as it relates to school achievement for Latino children, especially over the early elementary years. It is especially notable for a synthesis of research on demographic and linguistic profiles of young Latino children.

  • Garcia, Gil Narro, Peggy McCardle, and Stephanie M. Nixon. “Prologue: Development of English Literacy in Spanish-Speaking Children: Transforming Research into Practice.” Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 38.3 (1 July 2007): 213–215.

    DOI: 10.1044/0161-1461(2007/022)

    A special section with a clinical focus that includes five articles examining the impact of early language and cultural factors on the development of literacy in Spanish-English language learners. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Goldstein, Brian A., ed. Bilingual Language Development and Disorders in Spanish-English Speakers. 2d ed. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 2012.

    This collection of articles by leading researchers provides an outstanding introduction to the field. The range of topics on bilingual language acquisition included in this volume, and links to assessment or intervention with children, will appeal to a broad audience of researchers and practitioners. Originally published in 2004.

  • McCabe, Allyssa, Alison L. Bailey, and Gigliana Melzi, eds. Spanish-Language Narration and Literacy: Culture, Cognition, and Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511815669

    This seminal collection of studies explores the development of narrative discourse in Latino communities throughout the Americas. It examines the many ways that Latino children learn to tell stories and the relationships between Latino storytelling and literacy.

  • Shiro, Martha, Paola Uccelli, Claudia Ordóñez, Rebeca Barriga Villanueva, Catherine Snow, and Beatrice Schnell. “Learning to Talk: A Partial Review of Research on Spanish Language Development.” In Research on Child Language Acquisition: Proceedings of the 8th Conference of the International Association for the Study of Child Language. Edited by Margareta Almagren, Andoni Barreña, María-José Ezeizabarrena, Itziar Idiazabal, and Brian MacWhinney, 582–604. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla, 2001.

    This review article of research on the acquisition of oral language in monolingual Spanish speakers surveys work on the development of syntax and discourse of children living in the United States, Spain, and Latin America. This is an especially valuable window into a vast literature that is found in a wide range of sources.

  • Zentella, Ana Celia. Growing Up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

    In this monumental ethnography following twenty Puerto Rican families living in New York City, Zentella’s thick description brings to life the language socialization of five young girls in “El Barrio.” This engaging book explores the “bilingual/multidialectal repertoire, that is, a spectrum of linguistic codes” (p. 41) through which members of this social group build their individual identities and their community.

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