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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,
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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.

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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
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