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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.


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


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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.



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