Online processing of native and non-native phonemic contrasts in early bilinguals

TitleOnline processing of native and non-native phonemic contrasts in early bilinguals
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1999
AuthorsSebastián-Gallés N, Soto-Faraco S
Date Published09/1999
Keywordsbilingualism, Catalan, gating, Spanish, Speech Perception

There is considerable debate about whether bilinguals can distinguish L2 phonemic contrasts as efficiently as first language speakers can. To test this issue, a group of highly proficient Spanish-dominant Catalan-Spanish bilinguals (who had been exposed to Catalan between the ages of 3 and 4, but who, previous to this age, had been exposed only to Spanish) and another group of Catalan-dominant bilinguals (who had been exposed to Catalan from birth) were compared in a gating task. We developed a variation of the gating procedure that included a two-alternative forced choice test after each fragment was played. The differences between the two alternatives consisted of phonemic contrasts existing in Catalan but not in Spanish. Four contrasts were tested: two vocalic contrasts (/e/-/epsilon/ and /o/-z/) and two consonantal contrasts (/integral/-/z/ and /s/-/z/). The results showed that Spanish-dominant bilinguals, even the subset who were able to make correct identifications at the last gate, systematically performed worse than the group of Catalan-dominant bilinguals, needing longer portions of the signal to be able to correctly identify the stimuli. We argue that these results support the hypothesis that L1 shapes the perceptual system at early stages of development in such a way that it will determine the perception of non-native phonemic contrasts, even if there is extensive and early exposure to L2. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.