Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

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, Spain
Hide All

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.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

O. Aaltonen , P. Niemi , T. Nyrke , & M. Tuhkanen (1987). Event-related brain potentials and the perception of a phonetic continuum. Biological Psychology, 24, 197207.

T. Bongaerts , S. Mennen , & F. van der Slik (2000). Authenticity of pronunciation in naturalistic second language acquisition: The case of very advanced late learners of Dutch as a second language. Studia Linguistica, 54, 298308.

A. Caramazza , G. H. Yeni-Komshian , E. B. Zurif , & E. Carbone (1973). The acquisition of new phonological contrast: The case of stop consonants in French–English bilinguals. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 54, 421428.

A. Carney , G. Widin , & N. Viemeister (1977). Noncategorical perception of stop consonants differing in VOT. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 62, 961970.

R. Čeponienė , M. Cheour , & R. Näätänen (1998). Interstimulus interval and auditory event-related potentials in children: Evidence for multiple generators. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 108, 345354.

M. Cheour , P. Korpilahti , & O. Martynova (2001). Mismatch negativity (MMN) and late discriminative negativity (LDN) in investigating speech perception and learning in children and infants. Audiology and Neurotology, 6, 211.

I. Czigler , G. Csibra , & A. Csontos (1992). Age and inter-stimulus interval effects on event-related potentials to frequent and infrequent auditory stimuli. Biological Psychology, 33, 195206.

G. Dehaene-Lambertz (1997). Electrophysiological correlates of categorical phoneme perception in adults. Neuroreport, 8, 919–924.

J. L. Elman , R. L. Diehl , & S. E. Buchwald (1977). Perceptual switching in bilinguals. The Journal of the acoustical Society of America, 62, 971.

J. E. Flege , C. Schirru , & I. R. A. MacKay (2003). Interaction between the native and second language phonetic subsystems. Speech Communication, 40, 467491.

J. E. Flege , G. H. Yeni-Komshian , & S. Liu (1999). Age constraints on second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language, 41, 78104.

A. Garcia-Sierra , N. Ramirez-Esparza , J. Silva-Pereyra , J. Siard , & C. A. Champlin (2012). Assessing the double phonemic representation in bilingual speakers of Spanish and English: An electrophysiological study. Brain and Language, 121, 194205.

S. G. Guion (2003). The vowel systems of Quichua–Spanish bilinguals: Age of acquisition effects on the mutual influence of the first and second languages. Phonetica, 60, 98128.

P. Korpilahti , S. Salmela , H. Lang , B. Porn , & C. Crause (1997). Event-related potentials elicited by complex tones, words and pseudo-words in normal and language impaired children. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 103, 64.

P. Kuhl (1991). Human adults and human infants show a “perceptual magnet effect” for the prototypes of speech categories, monkeys do not. Perception & Psychophysics, 50, 93107.

S. C. Lipski , & K. Mathiak (2008). Auditory mismatch negativity for speech sound contrasts is modulated by language context. NeuroReport, 19, 10791083.

M. Mack (1989). Consonant and vowel perception and production: Early English–French bilinguals and English monolinguals. Perception & Psychophysics, 46, 187200.

I. R. A. MacKay , D. Meador , & E. Flege (2001). The identification of English consonants by native speakers of Italian. Phonetica, 58, 103125.

A. A. MacLeod , & C. Stoel-Gammon (2005). Are bilinguals different? What VOT tells us about simultaneous bilinguals. Journal of Multilingual Communication Disorders, 3, 118127.

V. Marian , H. Blumenfeld , & M. Kaushanskaya (2007). The language experience and proficiency questionnaire (LEAP–Q): Assessing language profiles in bilinguals and multilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 50, 940967.

R. Näätänen , T. Jacobsen , & I. Winkler (2005). Memory-based or afferent processes in mismatch negativity (MMN): A review of the evidence. Psychophysiology, 42, 2532.

R. Näätänen , A. Lehtokoski , M. Lennest , A. Luuki , J. Alliki , J. Sinkkonen , & K. Alho (1997). Language-specific phoneme representations revealed by electric and magnetic brain responses. Nature, 385, 432434.

R. Näätänen , & T. Picton (1987). The N1 wave of the human electric and magnetic respond o sound: A review and an analysis of the component structure. Psychophysiology, 24, 375425.

C. Pallier , L. Bosch , & N. Sebastián-Gallés (1997). A limit on behavioral plasticity in speech perception. Cognition, 64, B9–B17.

M. S. Peltola , T. Kujala , J. Tuomainen , M. Ek , O. Aaltonen , & R. Näätänen (2003). Native and foreign vowel discrimination as indexed by the mismatch negativity (MMN) response. Neuroscience Letters, 352, 2528.

M. S. Peltola , H. Tamminen , H. Toivonen , T. Kujala , & R. Näätänen (2012). Different kinds of bilinguals – different kinds of brains: The neural organisation of two languages in one brain. Brain and Language, 121, 261266.

D. Perani , E. Paulesu , N. Sebastián-Gallés , E. Dupoux , S. Dehaene , V. Bettinardi , S. F. Cappa , F. Fazio , & J. Mehler (1998). The bilingual brain: Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language. Brain, 121, 18411852.

T. Piske , E. Flege , I. R. A. MacKay , & D. Meador (2002). The production of English vowels by fluent early and late Italian–English bilinguals. Phonetica, 59, 4971.

D. B. Pisoni (1973). Auditory and phonetic memory codes in the discrimination of consonants and vowels. Perception & Psychophysics, 13, 253260.

L. Polka , & O.-S. Bohn (2003). Asymmetries in vowel perception. Speech Communication, 41, 221231.

L. Polka , & O-S. Bohn (2011) Natural Referent Vowel (NRV) framework: An emerging view of early phonetic development. Journal of Phonetics, 39, 467478.

M. Rivera-Gaxiola , G. Csibra , M. Johnson , & A. Karmiloff-Smith (2000). Electrophysiological correlates of cross-linguistic speech perception in native English speakers. Behavioral Brain Research, 111, 1323.

M. Sams , P. Paavilainen , K. Alho , & R. Näätänen (1985). Auditory frequency discrimination and event-related potentials. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 62, 437448.

N. Sebastián-Gallés , S. Echeverría , & L. Bosch (2005). The influence of initial exposure on lexical representation: Comparing early and simultaneous bilinguals. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 240255.

V. L. Shafer , R. G. Schwartz , & D. Kurtzberg (2004). Language-specific memory traces of consonants in the brain. Cognitive Brain Research, 18, 242254.

A. Sharma , & M. F. Dorman (1999). Cortical auditory evoked potential correlates of categorical perception of voice-onset time. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 106, 1078.

A. Sharma , & M. F. Dorman (2000). Neurophysiologic correlates of cross-language phonetic perception. Journal of Acoustical Society of America, 107, 26972703.

K. Steinhauer , & J. Drury (2012). On the early left-anterior negativity (ELAN) in syntax studies. Brain and Language, 120, 135162.

M. Sundara (2005). Acoustic-phonetics of coronal stops: A cross-language study of Canadian English and Canadian French. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118, 10261037.

M. Sundara , & L. Polka (2008). Discrimination of coronal stops by bilingual adults: The timing and nature of language interaction. Cognition, 106, 234258.

M. Sundara , L. Polka , & F. Genesee (2006b). Language experience facilitates discrimination of /dD/ in monolingual and bilingual acquisition of English. Cognition, 100, 369388.

M. Sundara , L. Polka , & M. Molnar (2008). Development of coronal stop perception: Bilingual infants keep pace with their monolingual peers. Cognition, 108, 232242.

L. Trejo , D. Ryan-Jones , & A. Kramer (1995). Attentional modulation of the mismatch negativity elicited by frequency differences between binaurally presented tone bursts. Psychophysiology, 32, 319328.

J. Werker , & J. Logan (1985). Cross-language evidence for three factors in speech perception. Perception & Psychophysics, 37, 3544.

I. Winkler , T. Kujala , A. Paavo , & R. Näätänen (2003). Language context and phonetic perception. Cognitive Brain Research, 17, 833844.

I. Winkler , T. Kujala , H. Tiitinen , P. Sivonen , P. Alku , A. Lehtokoski , I. Czigler , V. Csépe , R. J. Ilmoniemi , & R. Näätänen (1999). Brain responses reveal the learning of foreign language phonemes. Psychophysiology, 36, 638642.

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? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 6
Total number of PDF views: 65 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 182 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 24th September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.