Skip to main content Accessibility help

ERP indices of vowel processing in Spanish–English bilinguals*



This study examined behavioral and neurophysiological indices of discrimination of an English vowel contrast [ɪ–ɛ] by early and late bilingual Spanish–English speakers, compared to monolingual English speakers. Electrophysiological measures (Mismatched Negativity – MMN) and behavioral measures (AX discrimination and forced-choice identification) were employed to examine perception of a nine-step vowel continuum, re-synthesized from natural tokens. Results revealed that (i) both monolingual and early bilinguals showed similar behavioral perception while late bilinguals performed more poorly on all behavioral tasks; and (ii) monolinguals showed robust evidence of discrimination (MMN) at a pre-attentive level that was significantly larger than found for either early or late bilinguals. These findings suggested that early input of English vowels to bilinguals did not necessarily lead to robust, automatic processing, as measured at a more attention-independent neural level; but earlier experience with a second language allowed for native-like speech perception measured with behavioral tasks.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Valerie L. Shafer, 365 Fifth Avenue Room 7107, New York, NY 10016, USA


Hide All

We would like to than Nancy Vidal and Cristina Padron for helping with language proficiency ratings and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments. This research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under Award Number HD46193 to Valerie L. Shafer. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.



Hide All
Baker, W., Trofimovich, P., Mack, M., & Flege, J. E. (2002). The effect of perceived phonetic similarity on non-native sound learning by children and adults. In Skarabela, B., Fish, S. & Do, A. H.-J. (eds.), Proceedings of the Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development, 26, 3647. Boston, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Best, C. T. (1995). A direct realist view of cross-language speech perception. In Strange, W. (ed.), Speech perception and linguistic experience: Issues in cross-language research, pp. 171204. Baltimore, MA: York Press.
Bialystok, E., & Craik, F. I. M. (2010). Structure and process in lifespan cognitive development. In Overton, W. F. (ed.), The handbook of life-span development (vol. 1): Cognition, biology, and methods across the lifespan, pp. 195225. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Bialystok, E., & Feng, X. (2009). Language proficiency and executive control in proactive interference: Evidence from monolingual and bilingual children and adults. Brain & Language, 109, 93100.
Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview Language Learning, 56, Issue Supplement s1, 949.
Bosch, L., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2003). Simultaneous bilingualism and the perception of a language-specific vowel contrast in the first year of life. Language and Speech, 46, 217243.
Bradlow, A. R. (1995). A comparative acoustic study of English and Spanish vowels. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 97, 19161924.
Buchwald, J. S., Guthrie, D., Schwafel, J., Erwin, R. J., & Van Lancker, D. (1994). Influence of language structure on brain-behavior development. Brain & Language, 46, 607619.
Chobert, J., François, C., Velay, J. L., & Besson, M. (2014). Twelve months of active musical training in 8-to-10-year-old children enhances the preattentive processing of syllabic duration and Voice Onset Time. Cerebral Cortex, 24, 956967.
Cook, V. (1995). Multi-Competence and the learning of many languages. Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 8, 9398.
Costa, A., Hernandez, M., Costa-Faidella, J., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2009). On the bilingual advantage in conflict processing: Now you see it, now you don’t. Cognition, 113, 135149.
Cutler, A., Norris, D. G, & Williams, J. N. (1987). A note on the role of phonological expectations in speech segmentation. Journal of Memory and Language, 26, 480487.
Datta, H., Shafer, V. L., Morr, M. L., Kurtzberg, D., & Schwartz, R. G. (2010). Electrophysiological indices of discrimination of long-duration, phonetically similar vowels in children with typical and atypical language development. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53, 757777.
Dehaene-Lambertz, G., Dupoux, E., & Gout, A. (2000). Electrophysiological correlates of phonological processing: A Cross-linguistic Study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 635647.
Eimas, P. D. (1963). The relation between identification and discrimination along speech and nonspeech continua. Language Speech, 6, 206217.
Elman, J. L., Diehl, R. L., & Buchwald, S. E. (1977). Perceptual switching in bilinguals. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 62, 971974.
Ferree, T. C., Luu, P. L., Russell, J., & Tucker, D. M. (2001). Scalp-electrode impedance, infection risk, and EEG data quality. Clinical Neurophysiology, 112, 536544.
Fisher, R. A. (1922). The goodness of fit of regression formulae, and the distribution of regression coefficients. Journals of the Royal Statistical Society, 85, 597612.
Fisher, R. A. (1945). A new test for 2 × 2 tables. Nature, 156, No. 3961, 388.
Flege, J. E. (1991). Orthographic evidence for the perceptual identification of vowels in Spanish and English. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 43, 701731.
Flege, J. E. (1995). Second language speech learning: Theory, findings, and problems. In Strange, W. (ed.), Speech perception and linguistic experience: Issues in cross-language research, pp. 233277. Baltimore, MD: York Press.
Flege, J. E., Birdsong, D., Bialystok, E., Mack, M., Sung, H., & Tsukada, K. (2006). Degree of foreign accent in English sentences produced by Korean children and adults. Journal of Phonetics, 34, 153175.
Flege, J. E., Bohn, O-S., & Jang, S. (1997). The effect of experience on nonnative subjects’ production and perception of English vowels. Journal of Phonetics, 25, 437470.
Flege, J. E., & MacKay, I. (2004). Perceiving vowels in a second language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 134.
Flege, J. E., Munro, M., & Fox, R. (1994). Auditory and categorical effects on cross-language vowel perception. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 95, 36233641.
García-Sierra, A., Diehl, R. L., & Champlin, C. (2009). Testing the double phonemic boundary in bilinguals. Speech Communication, 51, 369378.
García-Sierra, A., Ramírez-Esparza, N., Silva-Pereyra, J., Siard, J., & Champlin, A. (2012). Assessing the double phonemic representation in bilingual speakers of Spanish and English: An electrophysiological study. Brain & Language, 121, 194205.
Gomes, H., Molholm, S., Ritter, W., Kurtzberg, D., Cowan, N., & Vaughan, H. G. Jr. (2000). Mismatch negativity in children and adults, and effects of an attended task. Psychophysiology, 37, 807816.
Gonzales, K., & Lotto, A. J. (2013). A bafri, unpafri: Bilinguals’ pseudoword identifications support language-specific phonetic systems. Psychological Science, 24, 21352142.
Gottfried, T. L. (1984). Effects of consonant context on the perception of French vowels. Journal of Phonetics, 12, 91114.
Green, D., & Swets, J. (1966). Signal Detection Theory and psychophysics. New York: Wiley.
Guion, S. G., Clark, J. J., Harada, T., & Wayland, R. P. (2003). Factors affecting stress placement for English nonwords include syllabic structure, lexical class, and stress patterns of phonologically similar words. Language and Speech, 46, 403427.
Guion, S. G., Harada, T., & Clark, J. J. (2004). Early and late Spanish–English bilinguals’ acquisition of English word stress patterns. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 7, 207226.
Hammond, R. M. (2001). The sounds of Spanish: Analysis and application. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Healy, A. F., & Repp, B. H. (1982). Context independence and phonetic mediation in categorical perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 8, 6880.
Hillenbrand, J. M., Getty, L. A., Clark, M. J., & Wheeler, K. (1995). Acoustic characteristics of American English vowels. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 97, 30993111.
Hisagi, M., Shafer, V. L., Strange, W., & Sussman, E. (2010). Perception of a Japanese vowel length contrast by Japanese and American English listeners: Behavioral and electrophysiological measures. Brain Research, 1360, 89105.
Hisagi, M., & Strange, W. (2011). Perception of Japanese temporally-cued contrasts by American English listeners. Language and Speech, 54, 241264.
Jusczyk, P. W. (1997). The discovery of spoken language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Krashen, S., Long, M., & Scarcella, R. (1979). Age, rate and eventual attainment in second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 13, 573582. [Reprinted in S. D. Krashen, R. C. Scarcella & M. H. Long (eds.), Child–adult differences in second language acquisition, pp. 161–172. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1982.]
Kraus, N., McGee, T., Carell, T., Zecker, S., Nicol, T., & Koch, D. (1996). Auditory neurophysiologic response and discrimination deficits in children with learning problems. Science, 273, 971973.
Kraus, N., Micco, A., Koch, D., McGee, T., Carrell, T., Sharma, A., Wiet, R., & Weingarten, C. (1993). The mismatch negativity cortical evoked potential elicited by speech in cochlear-implant users. Hearing Research, 65, 118124.
Kuhl, P. K., Conboy, B. T., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., Rivera-Gaxiola, M., & Nelson, T. (2008). Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: New data and native language magnet theory expanded (NLM-e). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363, 9791000.
Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). Biological foundations of language. New York: Wiley.
Levy, E. S., & Strange, W. (2008). Perception of French vowels by American English adults with and without French language experience. Journal of Phonetics, 36, 141157.
Luck, S. (2005). An introduction to the event-related potential technique. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mack, M. (1989). Consonant and vowel perception and production: Early English–French bilinguals and English monolinguals. Perception & Psychophisics, 46, 187200.
MacKain, K. S., Best, C. T., & Strange, W. (1981). Categorical perception of English /r/ and /l/ by Japanese bilinguals. Applied Psycholinguistics, 2, 369390.
Maiste, A. C., Wiens, A. S., Hunt, M. J., Scherg, M., & Picton, T. W. (1995). Event related potentials and the categorical perception of speech sounds. Ear and Hearing, 16, 6889.
Menning, H., Imaizumi, S., Zwitserlood, P., & Pantev, C. (2002). Plasticity of the human auditory cortex induced by discrimination earning of non-native, mora-timed contrasts of the Japanese language. Learning Memory, 9, 253267.
Molner, M., Baum, S., Polka, L., Menard, L., & Steinhauer, K. (2009). Automatic auditory discrimination of vowels in simultaneous bilingual and monolingual speakers as measured by the mismatch negativity (MMN). Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 125, 2754–2754.
Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (1995). Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 45, 7397.
Näätänen, R. (1990). The role of attention in auditory information processing as revealed by event-related potentials and other brain measures of cognitive functions. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13, 201288.
Näätänen, R., Lehtokoski, A., Lennes, M., Cheour, M., Huotilainen, M., Iivonen, A., Vainio, M., Alku, P., Ilmoniemi, R. J., Luuk, A., Allik, J., Sinkkonen, J., & Alho, K. (1997). Language-specific phoneme representations revealed by electric and magnetic brain responses. Nature, 385, 432434.
Näätänen, R., Paavilainen, P., Rinne, T., & Alho, K. (2007). The mismatch negativity (MMN) in basic research of central auditory processing: A review. Clinical Neurophysiology, 118, 25442590.
Nenonen, S., Shestakova, A., Huotilainen, M., & Näätänen, R. (2003). Linguistic relevance of duration within the native language determines the accuracy of speech–sound duration processing. Cognitive Brain Research, 16, 492495.
Nenonen, S., Shestakova, A., Huotilainen, M., & Näätänen, R. (2005). Speech–sound duration processing in a second language is specific to phonetic categories. Brain & Language, 92, 2632.
Nishi, K., Strange, W., Akahane-Yamada, R., Kubo, R., & Trent-Brown, S. A. (2008). Acoustic and perceptual similarity of Japanese and American English vowels. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 124, 576588.
Nittrouer, S. (1996). The relation between speech perception and phonemic awareness: Evidence from low-SES children and children with chronic OM. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 39, 10591070.
Nittrouer, S., & Crowther, C. S. (1998). Examining the role of auditory sensitivity in the developmental weighting shift. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 41, 809818.
Nittrouer, S., Crowther, C. S., & Miller, M. E. (1998). The relative weighting of acoustic properties in the perception of [s]+stop clusters by children and adults. Perception & Psychophysics, 60, 5164.
Nittrouer, S., & Miller, M. E. (1997). Predicting developmental shifts in perceptual weighting schemes. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 101, 22532266.
Pallier, C., Bosch, L., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (1997). A limit on behavioral plasticity in vowel acquisition. Cognition, 64, B917.
Pastore, R., Crawley, E., Berens, M., & Skelly, M. (2003). Non-parametric A¢ and other modern misconceptions about signal detection theory. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 10, 556569.
Peltola, M. S., Kujala, T., Tuomainen, J., Ek, M., Altonen, O., & Näätänen, R. (2003). Native and foreign vowel discrimination as indexed by the mismatch negativity (MMN) response. Neuroscience Letters, 352, 2528.
Peltola, M. S., Tamminen, H., Lehtola, H., & Aaltonen, O. (2007). Balanced bilinguals have one inter twined phonological system. 15th International Congress of Phonetics Sciences (ICPhS 15), Saarbrücken, p. 5.
Peltola, M. S., Tamminen, H., Salonen, L., Toivonen, H., Kujala, T., & Näätänen, R. (2010). Two languages – one brain. Proceedings of the 3rd ISCA Workshop ExLing 2010, pp. 145–148.
Picton, T. W., Alain, C., Otten, L., Ritter, W., & Achim, A. (2000). Mismatch negativity: Different water in the same river. Audiology and Neuro-Otology, 5, 111139.
Pisoni, D. B. (1973). Auditory and phonetic memory codes in the discrimination of consonants and vowels. Perception & Psychophysics, 13, 253260.
Pollack, I., & Norman, D. A. (1964). A non-parametric analysis of recognition experiments. Psychonomic Science, 1, 125126.
Recasens, D., & Espinosa, A. (2006). Dispersion and variability in Catalan vowels. Speech Communication, 48, 645666.
Ritter, W., Sussman, E., Deacon, D., Cowan, N., & Vaughan, H. G. Jr. (1999). Two cognitive systems simultaneously prepared for opposite events. Psychophysiology, 36, 835839.
Schmidt, A. M., & Flege, J. E. (1996). Speaking rate effects in stops produced by Spanish and English monolinguals and Spanish/English bilinguals. Phonetica, 53, 162179.
Sebastián-Gallés, N., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., Diego-Balaguer, R., & Díaz, B. (2006). First- and second-language phonological representations in the mental lexicon. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18, 12771291.
Shafer, V. L., Morr, M. L., Datta, H., Kurtzberg, D., & Schwartz, R. G. (2005). Neurophysiological indices of speech processing deficits in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Cognitive Neurosciences, 17, 11681180.
Shafer, V. L., Schwartz, R. G., & Kurtzberg, D. (2004). Language-specific memory traces of consonants in the brain. Cognitive Brain Research, 18, 242254.
Shafer, V. L., Yu, Y., & Datta, H. (2010). Maturation of electrophysiological mismatch responses (MMR) to vowel contrasts in four to seven-year-old children. Ear and Hearing, 31, 735745.
Strange, W. (2011). Automatic selective perception (ASP) of first and second language speech: A working model. Journal of Phonetics, 39, 456466.
Strange, W., & Dittman, S. (1984). Effects of discrimination training on the perception of /r–l/ by Japanese adults learning English. Perception & Psychophysics, 36, 131145.
Strange, W., & Shafer, V. L. (2008). Speech perception in late second language learners: The re-education of selective perception. In Hansen Edwards, J. G. & Zampini, M. L. (eds.), Phonology and second language acquisition, pp. 153191. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Sundara, M., & Polka, L. (2008). Discrimination of coronal stops by bilingual adults: The timing and nature of language interaction. Cognition, 106, 234258.
Sussman, E., Winkler, I., Kreuzer, J., Saher, M., Näätänen, R., & Ritter, W. (2002). Temporal integration: Intentional sound discrimination does not modify stimulus-driven processes in auditory event synthesis. Clinical Neurophysiology, 113, 909920.
Tamminen, H., Peltola, M. S., Toivonen, H., Kujala, T., & Näätänen, R. (2013). Phonological processing differences in bilinguals and monolinguals. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 87, 812
Thornburgh, D. F., & Ryalls, J. H. (1998). Voice onset time in Spanish–English bilinguals: Early versus late learners of English. Journal of Communication Disorder, 31, 215228.
Weber-Fox, C. M., & Neville, H. J. (1996). Maturational constraints on functional specializations for language processing: ERP and behavioral evidence in bilingual speakers. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 8, 231256.
Werker, J. F., & Curtin, S. (2005). PRIMIR: A developmental framework of infant speech processing. Language Learning and Development, 1, 197234.
Werker, J. F., & Tees, R. C. (1984). Cross-language speech perception: Evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life. Infant Behavior and Development, 7, 4963.
Williams, L. (1977). The perception of stop consonant voicing by Spanish–English bilinguals. Perception & Psychophysics, 21, 289297.
Winkler, I., Kujaha, T., Alku, P., & Näätänen, R. (2003). Language context and phonetic change detection. Cognitive Brain Research, 17, 833844.
Winkler, I., Kujala, T., Tiitinen, H., Sivonen, P., Alku, P., Lehtokoski, A., Czigler, I., Csépe, V., Ilmoniemi, R. J., & Näätänen, R. (1999a). Brain responses reveal the learning of foreign language phonemes. Psychophysiology, 36, 638642.
Winkler, I., Lehtokoski, A., Alku, P., Vainio, M., Czigler, I., Csépe, V., Aaltonen, O., Raimo, I., Alho, K., Lang, A. H., Iivonen, A., & Näätänen, R. (1999b). Pre-attentive detection of vowel contrasts utilizes both phonetic and auditory memory representations. Cognitive Brain Research, 7, 357369.
Yeni-Komshian, G. H., Flege, J. E., & Liu, S. (2000). Pronunciation proficiency in the first and second languages of Korean–English bilinguals. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 3, 131149.
Zevin, J. D., Datta, H., Maurer, U., Rosania, K. A., & McCandliss, B. D. (2010). Native language experience influences the topography of the mismatch negativity to speech. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 4:212. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2010.00212.


Related content

Powered by UNSILO

ERP indices of vowel processing in Spanish–English bilinguals*



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.