Skip to main content Accessibility help

The bilingual advantage in phonetic learning*

  • MARK ANTONIOU (a1), ERIC LIANG (a2), MARC ETTLINGER (a3) and PATRICK C. M. WONG (a4) (a2) (a5) (a6)


Numerous factors are thought to be advantageous for non-native language learning although they are typically investigated in isolation, and the interaction between them is not understood. Firstly, bilinguals are claimed to acquire a third language easier than monolinguals acquire a second. Secondly, closely related languages may be easier to learn. Thirdly, certain phonetic features could be universally more difficult to acquire. We tested these hypotheses used as explanations by having adults learn vocabularies that differentiated words using foreign phonetic contrasts. In Experiment 1, Mandarin–English bilinguals outlearned English monolinguals, and the Mandarin-like (retroflex) artificial language was better learned than the English-like (fricative voicing). In Experiment 2, bilinguals again outlearned English monolinguals for the Mandarin-like artificial language. However, only Korean–English bilinguals showed an advantage for the more difficult Korean-like (lenition) language. Bilinguals, relative to monolinguals, show a general advantage when learning ‘easy’ contrasts, but phonetic similarity to the native language is useful for learning universally ‘difficult’ contrasts.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Patrick C. M. Wong, Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T. Hong Kong SAR, China


Hide All

This work is supported by the Lui Che Woo Institute of Innovative Medicine at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the US National Institutes of Health grants R01DC008333 and R01DC013315, National Science Foundation grant BCS-1125144, the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong grants 477513 and 14117514, the Health and Medical Research Fund of Hong Kong grant 01120616, and the Global Parent Child Resource Centre Limited.



Hide All
Abu-Rabia, S., & Sanitsky, E. (2010). Advantages of bilinguals over monolinguals in learning a third language. Bilingual Research Journal, 33, 173199. doi:10.1080/15235882.2010.502797
Albert, M. L., & Obler, L. K. (1978). The bilingual brain: Neuropsychological and neurolinguistic aspects of bilingualism. New York: Academic Press.
Antoniou, M., Best, C. T., & Tyler, M. D. (2013). Focusing the lens of language experience: Perception of Ma’di stops by Greek and English bilinguals and monolinguals. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 133, 23972411. doi:10.1121/1.4792358
Antoniou, M., Tyler, M. D., & Best, C. T. (2012). Two ways to listen: Do L2-dominant bilinguals perceive stop voicing according to language mode? Journal of Phonetics, 40, 582594. doi:10.1016/j.wocn.2012.05.005
Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Balke-Aurell, G., & Linblad, T. (1982). Immigrant children and their languages. Department of Educational Research: University of Gothenburg.
Bartolotti, J., & Marian, V. (2012). Language learning and control in monolinguals and bilinguals. Cognitive Science, 36, 119. doi:10.1111/j.1551-6709.2012.01243.x
Ben-Zeev, S. (1977). The influence of bilingualism on cognitive strategy and cognitive development. Child Development, 48, 10091018. doi:10.2307/1128353
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). Timonium, MD: York Press.
Best, C. T., & Tyler, M. D. (2007). Nonnative and second-language speech perception: Commonalities and complementarities. In Bohn, O.-S. & Munro, M. J. (eds.), Language experience in second language speech learning: In honor of James Emil Flege (pp. 1334). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Bialystok, E. (1991). Metalinguistic dimensions of bilingual language proficiency. In Bialystok, E. (ed.), Language processing in bilingual children (pp. 113140). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bialystok, E., & Craik, F. I. M. (2010). Cognitive and linguistic processing in the bilingual mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 1923. doi:10.1177/0963721409358571
Bialystok, E., Majumder, S., & Martin, M. M. (2003). Developing phonological awareness: Is there a bilingual advantage? Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 2744. doi:10.1017/S014271640300002X
Bialystok, E., & Viswanathan, M. (2009). Components of executive control with advantages for bilingual children in two cultures. Cognition, 112, 494500. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2009.06.014
Blevins, J. (2004). Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Browman, C. P., & Goldstein, L. (1992). Articulatory phonology: An overview. Phonetica, 49, 155180. doi:10.1159/000261913
Bruck, M., & Genesee, F. (1995). Phonological awareness in young second language learners. Journal of Child Language, 22, 307324. doi:10.1017/S0305000900009806
Carlson, S. M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2008). Bilingual experience and executive functioning in young children. Developmental Science, 11, 282298. doi:10.1111/j.1467–7687.2008.00675.x
Cenoz, J. (2001). The effect of linguistic distance, L2 status and age on cross-linguistic influence in third language acquisition. In Cenoz, J., Hufeisen, B., & Jessner, U. (eds.), Cross-linguistic influence in third language acquisition: Psycholinguistic perspectives (pp. 820). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cenoz, J. (2003). The additive effect of bilingualism on third language acquisition: A review. International Journal of Bilingualism, 7, 7187. doi:10.1177/13670069030070010501
Cenoz, J., & Valencia, J. F. (1994). Additive trilingualism: Evidence from the Basque Country. Applied Psycholinguistics, 15, 195207. doi:10.1017/S0142716400005324
Chandrasekaran, B., Sampath, P. D., & Wong, P. C. M. (2010). Individual variability in cue-weighting and lexical tone learning. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 128, 456465. doi:10.1121/1.3445785
Chang, S. S., Plauché, M. C., & Ohala, J. J. (2001). Markedness and consonant confusion asymmetries. In Hume, E. & Johnson, K. (eds.), The role of speech perception in phonology (pp. 79101). New York: Academic Press.
Cho, T., Jun, S.-A., & Ladefoged, P. (2002). Acoustic and aerodynamic correlates of Korean stops and fricatives. Journal of Phonetics, 30, 193228. doi:10.1006/jpho.2001.0153
Clyne, M., Hunt, C. R., & Isaakidis, T. (2004). Learning a community language as a third language. International Journal of Multilingualism, 1, 3352. doi:10.1080/14790710408668177
Cohen, S. P., Tucker, G. R., & Lambert, W. E. (1967). The comparative skills of monolinguals and bilinguals in perceiving phoneme sequences. Language and Speech, 10, 159168. doi:10.1177/002383096701000302
Cummins, J. (1978). Bilingualism and the development of metalinguistic awareness. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 9, 131149. doi:10.1177/002202217892001
Davine, M., Tucker, G. R., & Lambert, W. E. (1971). The perception of phoneme sequences by monolingual and bilingual elementary school children. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue Canadienne Des Sciences Du Comportement, 3, 7276. doi:10.1037/h0082251
Duñabeitia, J. A., Hernández, J. A., Antón, E., Macizo, P., Estévez, A., Fuentes, L. J., & Carreiras, M. (2014). The inhibitory advantage in bilingual children revisited: Myth or reality? Experimental Psychology, 61, 234251. doi:10.1027/1618-3169/a000243
Eckman, F. R. (1977). Markedness and the contrastive analysis hypothesis. Language Learning, 27, 315330. doi:10.1111/j.1467-1770.1977.tb00124.x
Eckman, F. R. (1985). Some theoretical and pedagogical implications of the markedness differential hypothesis. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7, 289307. doi:10.1017/S0272263100005544
Eckman, F. R. (2008). Typological markedness and second language phonology. In Edwards, J. G. H. & Zampini, M. L. (eds.), Phonology and second language acquisition (Vol. 36, pp. 95115). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Enomoto, K. (1994). L2 perceptual acquisition: The effect of multilingual linguistic experience on the perception of a “less novel” contrast. Edinburgh Working Papers in Applied Linguistics, 5, 1529.
Ettlinger, M., & Johnson, K. (2009). Vowel discrimination by English, French and Turkish speakers: Evidence for an exemplar-based approach to speech perception. Phonetica, 66, 222242. doi:10.1159/000298584
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: York Press.
Galambos, S. J., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (1990). The effects of learning two languages on levels of metalinguistic awareness. Cognition, 34, 156. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(90)90030-N
Gallardo del Puerto, F. (2007). Is L3 phonological competence affected by the learner's level of bilingualism? International Journal of Multilingualism, 4, 116. doi:10.2167/ijm042.0
Gonzalez-Ardeo, J. M. (2001). Engineering students and ESP in the Basque Country: SLA versus TLA. In Cenoz, J., Hufeisen, B., & Jessner, U. (eds.), Looking beyond second language acquisition: Studies in tri-and multilingualism (pp. 7595). Tubingen: Stauffenburg.
Green, D. W. (1998). Mental control of the bilingual lexico-semantic system. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 1, 6781. doi:10.1017/S1366728998000133
Grunwell, P. (1981). The development of phonology: A descriptive profile. First Language, 2, 161191. doi:10.1177/014272378100200601
Hammarberg, B. (1997). Conditions on transfer in phonology. In James, A. & Leather, J. (eds.), Second-language speech: Structure and process (pp. 161180). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Hammarberg, B. (2001). Roles of L1 and L2 in L3 production and acquisition. In Cenoz, J., Hufeisen, B., & Jessner, U. (eds.), Cross-linguistic influence in third language acquisition: Psycholinguistic perspectives (pp. 2141). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Hayes, B., & Steriade, D. (2004). Introduction: The phonetic bases of phonological markedness. In Hayes, B., Kirchner, R., & Steriade, D. (eds.), Phonetically based phonology (pp. 133). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Holt, L. L., & Lotto, A. J. (2006). Cue weighting in auditory categorization: Implications for first and second language acquisition. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 119, 30593071. doi:10.1121/1.2188377
Ianco-Worrall, A. D. (1972). Bilingualism and cognitive development. Child Development, 43, 13901400. doi:10.2307/1127524
Iverson, P., Hazan, V., & Bannister, K. (2005). Phonetic training with acoustic cue manipulations: A comparison of methods for teaching English /r/-/l/ to Japanese adults. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118, 32673278. doi:10.1121/1.2062307
Jacobsen, M., & Imhoof, M. (1974). Predicting success in learning a second language. The Modern Language Journal, 58, 329336. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1974.tb05120.x
Jakobson, R. (1968). Child language, aphasia and phonological universals. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.
Jaspaert, K., & Lemmens, G. (1990). Linguistic evaluation of Dutch as a third language. In Byram, M. & Leman, J. (eds.), Bicultural and trilingual education: The Foyer model in Brussels (pp. 3056). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Jessner, U. (1999). Metalinguistic awareness in multilinguals: cognitive aspects of third language learning. Language Awareness, 8, 201209. doi:10.1080/09658419908667129
Jusczyk, P. W. (1998). Constraining the search for structure in the input. Lingua, 106, 197218. doi:10.1016/S0024-3841(98)00034-5
Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2009a). Bilingualism reduces native-language interference during novel-word learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 829835. doi:10.1037/a0015275
Kaushanskaya, M., & Marian, V. (2009b). The bilingual advantage in novel word learning. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16, 705710. doi:10.3758/PBR.16.4.705
Keshavarz, M. H., & Astaneh, H. (2004). The impact of bilinguality on the learning of english vocabulary as a foreign language (L3). International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7, 295302. doi:10.1080/13670050408667814
Kuhl, P. K. (1993). Innate predispositions and the effects of experience in speech perception: The native language magnet theory. In de Boysson, B., de Sconen, S., Jusczyk, P., McNeilage, P., & Morton, J. (eds.), Developmental neurocognition: Speech and face processing in the first year of life (pp. 259274). New York: Springer.
Lado, R. (1957). Linguistics across cultures: Applied linguistics for language teachers. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Lambert, W. E., & MacNamara, J. (1969). Some cognitive consequences of following a first-grade curriculum in a second language. Journal of Educational Psychology, 60, 8696. doi:10.1037/h0027092
Lerea, L., & Kohut, S. (1961). A comparative study of monolinguals and bilinguals in a verbal task performance. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 17, 4952. doi:10.1002/1097-4679(196101)17:1<49::AID-JCLP2270170117>3.0.CO;2-N
Maddieson, I. (1984). Patterns of sounds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Maddieson, I. (2013a). Consonant inventories. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved from
Maddieson, I. (2013b). Voicing in plosives and fricatives. In Dryer, M. S. & Haspelmath, M. (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Retrieved from
Major, R. C. (2008). Transfer in second language phonology: A review. In Edwards, J. G. H. & Zampini, M. L. (eds.), Phonology and second language acquisition (Vol. 36, pp. 6394). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Michael, E. B., & Gollan, T. H. (2005). Being and becoming bilingual: Individual differences and consequences for language production. In Kroll, J. F. & De Groot, A. M. B. (eds.), Handbook of bilingualism: Psycholinguistic approaches (pp. 389407). New York: Oxford University Press.
Odlin, T. (1989). Language transfer: Cross-linguistic influence in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ohala, J. J. (1992). What's cognitive, what's not in sound change. In Kellerman, G. & Morrissey, M. D. (eds.), Diachrony within synchrony: Language history and cognition (pp. 309355). Frankfurt: Verlag.
Paap, K. R., & Greenberg, Z. I. (2013). There is no coherent evidence for a bilingual advantage in executive processing. Cognitive Psychology, 66, 232258. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2012.12.002
Pallier, C., Colomé, A., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2001). The influence of native-language phonology on lexical access: Exemplar-based versus abstract lexical entries. Psychological Science, 12, 445449. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00383
Peal, E., & Lambert, W. E. (1962). The relation of bilingualism to intelligence. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 76, 123. doi:10.1037/h0093840
Peperkamp, S., & Dupoux, E. (2007). The acquisition of abstract phoneme categories. In Cole, J. & Hualde, J. (eds.), Laboratory phonology (Vol. 9, pp. 315338). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Peperkamp, S., Le Calvez, R., Nadal, J.-P., & Dupoux, E. (2006). The acquisition of allophonic rules: Statistical learning with linguistic constraints. Cognition, 101, B31–B41. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2005.10.006
Perrachione, T. K., Lee, J., Ha, L. Y. Y., & Wong, P. C. M. (2011). Learning a novel phonological contrast depends on interactions between individual differences and training paradigm design. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130, 461472. doi:10.1121/1.3593366
Polka, L. (1991). Cross-language speech perception in adults: Phonemic, phonetic, and acoustic contributions. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 89, 29612977. doi:10.1121/1.400734
Rabinovitch, M. S., & Parver, L. M. (1966). Auditory discrimination in monolinguals and poliglots. Presented at the meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association. Montreal, Canada.
Ricciardelli, L. A. (1992). Bilingualism and cognitive development in relation to threshold theory. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 21, 301316. doi:10.1007/BF01067515
Rutherford, W. E. (1982). Markedness in second language acquisition. Language Learning, 32, 85108. doi:10.1111/j.1467-1770.1982.tb00520.x
Sander, E. K. (1972). When are speech sounds learned? Journal of Speech and Hearning Disorders, 37, 5563. doi:10.1044/jshd.3701.55
Sanders, M., & Meijers, G. (1995). English as L3 in the elementary school. ITL Review of Applied Linguistics, 107–8, 5978.
Sanz, C. (2000). Bilingual education enhances third language acquisition: Evidence from Catalonia. Applied Psycholinguistics, 21, 2344.
Schoonen, R., Gelderen, A. van, Glopper, K. de, Hulstijn, J., Simis, A., Snellings, P., & Stevenson, M. (2003). First language and second language writing: The role of linguistic knowledge, speed of processing, and metacognitive knowledge. Language Learning, 53, 165202. doi:10.1111/1467-9922.00213
Smit, A. B., Hand, L., Freilinger, J. J., Bernthal, J. E., & Bird, A. (1990). The Iowa Articulation Norms Project and its Nebraska replication. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 55, 779798. doi:10.1044/jshd.5504.779
Swain, M., Lapkin, S., Rowen, N., & Hart, D. (1990). The role of mother tongue literacy in third language learning. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 3, 6581. doi:10.1080/07908319009525073
Thomas, J. (1988). The role played by metalinguistic awareness in second and third language learning. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 9, 235246. doi:10.1080/01434632.1988.9994334
Thomas, J. (1992). Metalinguistic awareness in second- and third-language learning. In Harris, R. J. (ed.), Cognitive processing in bilinguals (Vol. 83, pp. 531545). Amsterdam: North-Holland.
Tremblay, M.-C., & Sabourin, L. (2012). Comparing behavioral discrimination and learning abilities in monolinguals, bilinguals and multilinguals. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 132, 34653474. doi:10.1121/1.4756955
Van Gelderen, A., Schoonen, R., de Glopper, K., Hulstijn, J., Snellings, P., Simis, A., & Stevenson, M. (2003). Roles of linguistic knowledge, metacognitive knowledge and processing speed in L3, L2 and L1 reading comprehension: A structural equation modeling approach. International Journal of Bilingualism, 7, 725. doi:10.1177/13670069030070010201
Weinreich, U. (1953). Languages in contact. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.
Werker, J. F. (1986). The effect of multilingualism on phonetic perceptual flexibility. Applied Psycholinguistics, 7, 141155. doi:10.1017/S0142716400007360
Wilson, C. (2006). Learning phonology with substantive bias: An experimental and computational study of velar palatalization. Cognitive Science, 30, 945982. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0000_89
Wong, P. C. M., & Ettlinger, M. (2011). Predictors of spoken language learning. Journal of Communication Disorders, 44, 564567. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2011.04.003
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
  • ISSN: 1366-7289
  • EISSN: 1469-1841
  • URL: /core/journals/bilingualism-language-and-cognition
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

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