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Variability in L2 phonemic learning originates from speech-specific capabilities: An MMN study on late bilinguals*


People differ in their ability to perceive second language (L2) sounds. In early bilinguals the variability in learning L2 phonemes stems from speech-specific capabilities (Díaz, Baus, Escera, Costa & Sebastián-Gallés, 2008). The present study addresses whether speech-specific capabilities similarly explain variability in late bilinguals. Event-related potentials were recorded (using a design similar to Díaz et al., 2008) in two groups of late Dutch–English bilinguals who were good or poor in overtly discriminating the L2 English vowels /ε-æ/. The mismatch negativity, an index of discrimination sensitivity, was similar between the groups in conditions involving pure tones (of different length, frequency, and presentation order) but was attenuated in poor L2 perceivers for native, unknown, and L2 phonemes. These results suggest that variability in L2 phonemic learning originates from speech-specific capabilities and imply a continuity of L2 phonemic learning mechanisms throughout the lifespan.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Begoña Díaz, Dept. Technology, C. Roc Boronat 138, 08018 Barcelona, Spain
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This work was supported by the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under REA grant agreement n° 32867 and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Spanish Government (Juan de la Cierva fellowship) to B.D., a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to M.B., a grant from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013): ERG grant agreement number 323961 (UNDER CONTROL) and Collaborative grant FP7-2013-613465 (ATHEME) to N.S.G. and by grants from the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (PSI 2012 – 34071; SEJ2009-09072) and the Catalan Government (SGR 2014–1210; SGR2009-11) awarded to N.S.G. and C.E. N.S.G. and C.E. received the prize ‘ICREA Acadèmia’ for excellence in research, funded by the Generalitat de Catalunya. The authors want to thank Xavier Mayoral for his technical support and Robert F. de Menezes for comments on the manuscript.

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