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Perception of tones by bilingual infants learning non-tone languages

  • LIQUAN LIU (a1) (a2) and RENÉ KAGER (a1)

This paper examines the ability of bilingual infants who were learning Dutch and another non-tone language to discriminate tonal contrasts. All infants from 5 to 18 months of age succeeded in discriminating a tonal contrast of Mandarin Chinese (Tone 1 versus Tone 4) and showed a U-shaped pattern when facing a less acoustically salient manipulated version (contracted) of the aforementioned contrast. Specifically, infants showed initial sensitivity to the contracted contrast during their early months, followed by a loss of sensitivity at the stage where tonal perceptual reorganization typically occurs, and a sensitivity rebound by the end of the first year after birth. Compared to a previous studying of ours testing monolingual Dutch infants (Liu & Kager, 2014), the discrimination patterns of bilingual infants revealed both similarities and differences. On one hand, as with monolinguals, non-tone-learning bilingual infants’ tonal perception presented plasticity influenced by contrast acoustic salience along the trajectory of perceptual reorganization; as well as a general U-shaped perceptual pattern when discriminating non-native tones. On the other hand, bilingual infants appeared to regain sensitivity to the contracted tonal contrast at an earlier age (11–12 months) in comparison with monolinguals infants (17–18 months). We provide several explanations, stemming from the simultaneous exposure to two languages, to account for the 6-month bilingual perceptual plasticity from linguistic and cognitive perspectives. The overall outcomes of the study offer insights into the infant perceptual reorganization and language development trajectory, expand on the differences between monolingual and bilingual language development, and broaden our understanding of the influence of bilingual exposure to the perception of non-native contrasts in infancy from linguistic and cognitive perspectives.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Liquan Liu, Western Sydney University, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Locked Bag 1797, NSW2751, Sydney, Australia
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We dearly thank Andrés Vanegas, Ileana Grama, Leher Singh, Maxime Pagnoulle, Rafèu Sichel-Bazin, Wei Wang, the babylab group, the experimental phonology group and the multilingualism group members of Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS, Utrecht University for their kind feedback. A special thank goes to Brendan Devers for his tremendous support on this paper. We sincerely thank Bilingualism: Language and Cognition anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on this paper. We owe our thanks to all the enthusiastic and supportive families that participated in our research. Part of the data was presented in Liu & Kager, 2013.
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