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Automaticity of speech processing in early bilingual adults and children

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 May 2019

Hia Datta*
Molloy College
Arild Hestvik
University of Delaware
Nancy Vidal
Iona College
Carol Tessel
Florida Atlantic University
Miwako Hisagi
University of Connecticut
Marcin Wróblewski
Pacific University Oregon
Valerie L. Shafer
CUNY Graduate Center
Address for correspondence: Hia Datta, E-mail:


We examine whether early acquisition of a second language (L2) leads to native-like neural processing of phonemic contrasts that are absent in the L1. Four groups (adult and child monolingual speakers of English; adult and child early bilingual speakers of English and Spanish, exposed to both languages before 5 years of age) participated in a study comparing the English /ɪ/ - /ε/ contrast. Neural measures of automatic change detection (Mismatch Negativity, MMN) and attention (Processing Negativity, PN and Late Negativity, LN) were measured by varying whether participants tracked the stimulus stream or not. We observed no effect of bilingualism on the MMN, but adult bilinguals differed significantly from adult monolinguals on neural indices of attention. The child bilinguals were indistinguishable from their monolingual peers. This suggest that learning a L2 before five years of age leads to native-like phoneme discrimination, but bilinguals develop increased attentional sensitivity to speech sounds.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019

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