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Learning two languages from birth shapes pre-attentive processing of vowel categories: Electrophysiological correlates of vowel discrimination in monolinguals and simultaneous bilinguals*


Using event-related brain potentials (ERPs), we measured pre-attentive processing involved in native vowel perception as reflected by the mismatch negativity (MMN) in monolingual and simultaneous bilingual (SB) users of Canadian English and Canadian French in response to various pairings of four vowels: English /u/, French /u/, French /y/, and a control /y/. The monolingual listeners exhibited a discrimination pattern that was shaped by their native language experience. The SB listeners, on the other hand, exhibited a MMN pattern that was distinct from both monolingual listener groups, suggesting that the SB pre-attentive system is tuned to access sub-phonemic detail with respect to both input languages, including detail that is not readily accessed by either of their monolingual peers. Additionally, simultaneous bilinguals exhibited sensitivity to language context generated by the standard vowel in the MMN paradigm. The automatic access to fine phonetic detail may aid SB listeners to rapidly adjust their perception to the variable listening conditions that they frequently encounter.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Monika Molnar, Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL), Donostia 20009,
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The authors thank Solange Akochi-Shaye and Masha Westerlund for their help in EEG data acquisition, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on a previous version of the manuscript. This study was partially supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR; MOP -11290) grant to S. Baum, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant to L. Polka, and by grants from the CIHR (MOP -74575), the NSERC (RGPGP 312835/402678–11), and the Canada Foundation for Innovation/Canada Research Chair Program (CFI/CRC; # 201876) awarded to K. Steinhauer, in whose Neurocognition of Language Lab at McGill this research was carried out.

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Bilingualism: Language and Cognition
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  • EISSN: 1469-1841
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