The bilingual advantage in phonetic learning

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Mark Antoniou and Patrick Wong based on an article in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

Fundamental questions concerning language learning remain unanswered. Some foreign learners are able to acquire a foreign language very successfully, whereas others are frustrated by their lack of progress. It is not clear why some learners flourish while others in the same setting struggle. Our study, published in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition sought to shed some light on this topic.

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, it is often claimed that it is easier for bilinguals to acquire a third language than it is for monolinguals to acquire a second. This may be due to cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, knowledge of a greater number of phonetic features, or greater perceptual flexibility that comes from having already learned an additional language. Secondly, closely related languages may be easier to learn because learners may benefit from their existing knowledge and fast-track their learning. Closely related languages are likely to share common features, and may thus allow a learner to skip having to learn those features. Thirdly, anecdotal evidence suggests that certain phonetic features (and perhaps even certain languages, more generally) might be universally more difficult to acquire regardless of prior language experience.

We tested each of these hypotheses in a series of experiments in which adults learned several artificial languages with vocabularies that differentiated words using foreign phonetic contrasts. In the first experiment, Mandarin–English bilinguals outlearned English monolinguals for both Mandarin-like and English-like languages, and both groups found the Mandarin-like (retroflex) artificial language easier to learn than the English-like (fricative voicing). In the second experiment, bilinguals again outlearned English monolinguals for the Mandarin-like artificial language. However, only Korean–English bilinguals showed an advantage over monolinguals for the more difficult Korean-like (lenition) language. Thus it seems that bilinguals, relative to monolinguals, show a general advantage when learning ‘easy’ phonetic contrasts, but similarity to the native language is useful for learning universally ‘difficult’ contrasts. These findings raise interesting new questions that we are pursuing in subsequent language learning experiments concerning the interaction between the characteristics of the language to be learned and individual differences among learners.

Read the full article ‘The bilingual advantage in phonetic learning’ here

Differences in Language Exposure and its Effects on Memory Flexibility in Monolingual, Bilingual, and Trilingual Infants

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Natalie H. Brito based on an article in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Although the majority of multilingual children learn languages sequentially, typically learning their first language in the home and their second language from school, a number of children are exposed to two or even three languages in the home from birth. Studies have found differences between infants exposed to one language vs. two on tasks tapping memory flexibility – as early as 6-months of age (Brito & Barr, 2014). Memory flexibility is the ability to retrieve past memories despite changes in cues and context, and memory flexibility has been tested using the deferred imitation memory generalization task. In this task, the experimenter demonstrates a series of actions with a toy, then after a delay, the infant is given the opportunity to play with the toy and demonstrate the previously seen target actions Generally, infants are able to recall the target actions when the toy is the same from demonstration to test, but fail to do so when there are inconsistencies in shape, color, or object.  The good news is that infants become better able to flexibly apply past memories as they grow older. For example, previous research demonstrated that monolingual 18-month-olds were unable to generalize across two puppets, a yellow duck and a black/white cow, but could do so 3 months later at 21-months of age. Using the same puppets, we found that bilingual, but not monolingual, infants were able to generalize at 18-months after a 30-minute delay (Brito & Barr, 2012).

In a recent study (Brito, Sebastián-Gallés, & Barr, 2015), we examined what factors may influence memory performance for bilingual infants. In the first experiment we examined the role of language similarity; bilingual 18-month-ols who heard to two similar languages (Spanish-Catalan) or two more different (English-Spanish) languages were tested on a memory generalization task and compared to monolingual 18-month-olds. In the second experiment we tested trilingual 18-month-olds exposed to a variety of languages and compared their performance to infants from the first experiment. Our results indicated that both bilingual groups (Spanish-Catalan & English Spanish) outperformed the monolingual groups, with no significant differences between the two bilingual groups. Interestingly, infants exposed to three languages from birth performed the same as the monolingual groups. For the trilinguals, it is possible that more experience processing the three languages is necessary and similarities between bilinguals and trilinguals may be more apparent later in life. These findings demonstrate early emerging differences in memory flexibility and contribute to our understanding of how early environmental variations shape the trajectory of memory development.

We invite you to read the full article ‘Differences in Language Exposure and its Effects on Memory Flexibility in Monolingual, Bilingual, and Trilingual Infants’ here



How do children who have recently begun to learn English map new L2 words into their existing mental lexicon?

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Greg Poarch based on an article in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

How do children who have recently begun to learn English map new L2 words into their existing mental lexicon? We tested the predictions of the Revised Hierarchical Model (Kroll & Stewart, 1994), originally introduced to explain language production processes and the relative strengths of the underlying connections between L1 and L2 word forms and the corresponding concepts. To examine how children map novel words to concepts during early stages of L2 learning, we tested fifth grade Dutch L2 learners with eight months of English instruction.

In Study 1, the children performed a translation recognition task, in which an English word (bike) was shown followed by a Dutch word and the children had to indicate whether the Dutch word was the correct translation. The Dutch word could be on of three: the correct translation equivalent (fiets), a semantically related incorrect translation (wiel [wheel]), or an unrelated incorrect translation (melk [milk]). The critical stimuli here were the semantically related incorrect translations: the RHM predicts that beginning learners should not be sensitive yet to L2 semantics, and hence perform equally on both kinds of incorrect translations. The children, however, were already sensitive to L2 word meaning and took longer to decide that a word was an incorrect translation when it was semantically related than unrelated.

In Study 2 the children performed backward and forward translation production tasks, and were faster in the backward direction, indicating direct translation from the L2 word to the L1 word without the detour via the concept, as predicted by the RHM. Our results indicate that depending on the task, Dutch beginning L2 learners do exploit conceptual information during L2 processing and map L2 word-forms to concepts, but evidently more so in recognition tasks than in production tasks. Critically, the children in our study had learned L2 words in contexts enriched by pictures and listening/speaking exercises.

This is further evidence that manner of L2 instruction may majorly impact the activation of lexical and conceptual information during translation.

Read the full article ‘Accessing word meaning in beginning second language learners: Lexical or conceptual mediation?’ here

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World

Post written by Jennifer Austin, María Blume & Liliana Sánchez authors of Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World.

Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking WorldBilingualism, and how it affects language and cognitive development, is a topic of increasing relevance in an interconnected world. In Bilingualism in the Spanish-Speaking World, we examine how the outcomes of bilingualism are shaped by factors at the individual level, such as age of acquisition and the amount and type of input, as well as societal support for the minority language in the form of dual-language education and similar initiatives. By analyzing previous research on the effects of these variables on bilingual speakers’ linguistic representations, as well as their minds and brains, we have attempted to provide a better understanding of some emerging conceptual views of the bilingual speaker. We also discuss how societal maintenance of bilingualism differs within the three multilingual communities which are the focus of this book: Peru, Spain and the United States. The status of Spanish varies between these regions; in Peru and the Spanish Basque Country, Spanish is a high-status, majority language, and in the United States, it is a minority language with varying degrees of prestige. While these three communities are linked by the common thread of bilingualism in Spanish, they provide diverse perspectives on the experience of being bilingual in distinct cultural, political, and socioeconomic contexts.

In the first chapter of the book, we examine how the concept of bilingualism has evolved from early definitions which included the expectation that bilinguals should behave like monolinguals, as in Bloomfield’s definition of bilingualism as the “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 55-56). Increasingly, contemporary theories of bilingualism view differences between bilinguals and monolinguals as expected and normal, rather than deficiencies on the part of the bilingual. In addition, we discuss how heritage speakers challenge previous expectations regarding bilingualism, namely that the first language acquired is always the dominant one (the “mother tongue”), as well as the language that is acquired in a “native-like” fashion.

In the second chapter, we discuss recent research showing that the two languages of a bilingual are highly interconnected at the lexical, syntactic and phonological levels. We also review evidence that the continual interaction between the languages of a bilingual has important repercussions for cognitive development in bilingual children beginning early in infancy. These include enhanced executive function skills stemming from bilinguals’ need to monitor and inhibit one of their languages, as well as enhanced literacy abilities for bilingual children acquiring same-script languages. Bilingualism also produces neuroanatomical changes in multilingual speakers, including enhanced subcortical auditory processing and increased grey matter density in the inferior parietal cortex, an effect that is modulated by language proficiency and age of acquisition. Finally in the second chapter we presented evidence regarding the factors that affect L1 and L2 attrition in bilinguals, including age of second language immersion, availability and type of input, and proficiency levels in each language.

The third chapter examines several theories which have been proposed to account for lexical and syntactic development in bilingual children and adults. While early theoretical accounts assumed that lexical and syntactic development occurred separately, more recent approaches have proposed that their acquisition is interconnected, a theoretical linguistic advance which finds empirical support in the studies of the bilingual lexicon by cognitive psychologists. In this chapter we also present research findings that have allowed the field of bilingualism to move from initial debates on unitary versus binary systems of representation to a more nuanced view of the development of the bilingual lexicon and syntax that involves the interplay of different language subcomponents.

The overall picture that emerges from this book is thatthe cognitive and linguistic effectsof bilingualism illustrate just how complex the representation and processing of language are in the human mind in ways that go beyond accounts based solely on the study of monolinguals.

To find out more about this new book published by Cambridge University Press please click here

Language use affects proficiency in Italian–Spanish bilinguals irrespective of age of second language acquisition

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Fabrizio De Carli based on an article in the latest issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Age is considered an important factor for the acquisition of new skills in the domain of language and in other perceptual and cognitive competences. Clear evidence of age of acquisition (AoA) effects has been found in the development of sensory systems, supporting the idea that specific brain functions can develop only during an early critical period, characterized by brain plasticity. The crucial role of infancy for the acquisition of basic language competences is supported by clear findings involving first language (L1) but its extension to second (L2) and further languages is controversial. Can adult people learn new languages and reach native-like skills? What factors or condition favor the acquisition of high proficiency in the new language? Experimental studies suggest that implicit learning and continued language use are major factors influencing bilingual proficiency.

According to the Declarative/Procedural Model (Ullman, 2001), language processing mainly includes: a mental lexicon, depending on declarative memory, a set of grammatical rules, and phonology, which both mainly depend on procedural memory. Accordingly, L1 acquisition extensively relies on implicit learning and procedural memory while L2 acquisition involves explicit learning and declarative memory. The convergence hypothesis (Green, 2003) suggests that these differences decrease when proficiency increases. However, beyond lexicon, grammar and phonology, verbal communication also involves pragmatic competences, enabling the use of sentences appropriate to the context, including figurative, metaphoric and idiomatic expressions. Another pragmatic competence concerns the communication in bilingual mode and entails the ability to switch between languages without code-mixing and interferences.

We present a study aimed at verifying the effect of AoA and intensity of language use on proficiency in a bilingual task and its relationship with cognitive skills. The study involved a group of Italian–Spanish bilinguals who performed a battery of cognitive tests and a bilingual test mainly involving pragmatic and lexical competences but not phonetics: it required the fast recognition of whole sentences having the same functional meaning in the two languages, so stimulating automatic language processing and switching. Statistical analysis showed significant effects of language use and cognitive skills, mainly switching and executive control, and a non-significant effect of AoA. These results indicate that intensive bilingual practice is a major factor influencing pragmatic bilingual proficiency, even irrespective of AoA, also suggesting that proficiency may be weakened when bilingual experience becomes occasional or ceases. The study also confirms the association between bilingual proficiency and cognitive skills which might reflect a positive reciprocal influence.

Read the full paper ‘Language use affects proficiency in Italian–Spanish bilinguals irrespective of age of second language acquisition’ here.

L3 Acquisition: A Focus on Cognitive Approaches

BIL SI Cover 2015Blog post written by Maria Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, introducing a new special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 

Most available evidence suggests that, when acquiring a new language, our brains make the automatic and unconscious assumption that, at some or all levels, it ‘works’ like one of the languages we already know. Since this is not necessarily the case for all properties, when our mental processor ‘transfers’ the previously acquired language this may have positive or negative (and sometimes downright comical) results with respect to target-like performance. How does the brain determine this source of transfer? Which language should it choose? In second language acquisition this question need not be asked, but what if the learner already speaks more than one language? A majority of the contributions to this special issue of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition deal with these questions, which are inevitably related to cognitive economy: transfer, more often than not, saves our brain a lot of time and effort. Exactly how, and under which criteria, the transfer source selection task is performed is what our colleagues are trying to determine. Inside this issue you will find state-of-the-art research on transfer at the initial stages of third language acquisition and beyond, inspecting a variety of linguistic domains that range from morpho-syntax to the lexicon.

Development, a concept just as important as the initial state, takes a complex yet fascinating turn in third language acquisition. A number of papers in this monograph focus on the diverse paths that the course of language acquisition may take within the sphere of multilingualism: from a look at heritage speakers who embark on relearning their native language to a formidable four-year longitudinal study that tracked the progress of almost one hundred bilingual children as they learnt a third language.

Of course, there is room for doubt in this special issue. One of the contributions poses the sensible question of whether studying how third language learners process language will teach us anything we cannot find out by looking at second language speakers. Is there really a qualitative difference between second and third language processing, or is it just more balls to juggle? The answer is as multifaceted as the question itself, but it has great implications for the way in which our brain deals with language.

Ever wondered what we already know about the adventure of learning a third or further language? Come and find out by reading the special issue of Bilingualism here.

Bilingual Cognitive Advantage: Where Do We Stand?

Bilingual-post-Nov-14---V2Linguistic experience and its effect on cognition.

The following post by Dr. Aneta Pavlenko appeared on the Psychology Today blog, “Life as a bilingual”

Like all other walks of life, academia is not immune to fashions. In the study of bilingualism, one such trend has been the study of “the bilingual cognitive advantage”, the theory that experience of using two languages – and selecting one, while inhibiting the other – affects brain structure and strengthens ‘executive control’ akin to other experiences, such as musical training, navigation, and even juggling. This strengthening has been linked to a variety of findings: the superiority of bilingual children and adults in performance on tasks requiring cognitive control, resistance of bilingual brains to cognitive decline, and the delayed onset of dementia (see here).

Touted in the popular media, these findings captured our hearts and minds and for good reason: for those of us who are bi- and multilingual, this is good news and the focus itself is a pleasant change from concerns about bilingual disadvantage that permeated many early debates on bilingualism. But has the pendulum swung too much in the other direction? Has bilingualism become a commodity we are trying to sell, instead of an experience we are trying to understand? And is there, in fact, a consensus that the knowledge of more than one language offers us something more than the joys of reading and conversing in two languages and a leg up in learning the third, among other things?

For the remainder of the post, please click here

Baum, S. & Titone D. (2014). Moving towards a neuroplasticity view of bilingualism, executive control, and aging. Applied Psycholinguistics, 35, 857-894.
Valian, V. (2014, in press) Bilingualism and cognition. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition.



Bilingual children cope well in noisy classrooms

Bilingual-children-Oct-14Youngsters who speak two languages maintain their focus better than monolinguals

 A new study, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, has found that bilingual primary school children learn more effectively than monolinguals within noisy environments such as classrooms.

Anglia Ruskin University’s Dr Roberto Filippi carried out research in Cambridge primary schools, focusing on children aged between seven and 10.

The study discovered that bilingual children were more able to maintain focus on a main task, which in this case was the identification of the subject within a short sentence in the presence of noise.

Pupils who only speak one language did not reach the same level of efficiency, showing that noise negatively affects their ability to sustain attention, especially when comprehending more difficult sentences.

Dr Filippi, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin, said: “Previous research has shown that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognitive abilities, but there were no studies investigated whether these advantages extended to learning in noisy environments.

“Primary schools are the key stages for the development of formal learning in the first years of life.  However, they are also remarkably noisy.  Therefore the ability to filter out auditory interference is particularly important within the context of an educational environment.”

Dr Filippi was joined by international researchers from Birkbeck in London and the Northwestern University in Chicago.  The study provides further evidence of the importance of learning a second language early in the UK educational system.

Following the findings of the study, the researchers have applied to the Leverhulme Trust for funding to conduct large-scale research in this area which will survey people of all ages in an attempt to track how bilingualism affects the brain throughout a person’s development.

Co-Editor of Bilingualism: Language and Cognition Dr Jubin Abutalebi comments “The elegant research carried out by Dr. Filippi and coworkers addresses an important field of enquiry within developmental psychology. In their contribution, the authors report that bilingual children have superior performance in controlling verbal interference as compared to their monolingual peers. However, as the authors underline this effect is dependent on how good bilingual children master their two languages. Dr. Abutalebi, one of the editors of ‘Bilingualism: Language and Cognition’, notes that this study may further add crucial evidence to the controversy surrounding research questions such as if and eventually how bilingualism enhances cognitive functions.”

Read the entire article ‘Bilingual children show an advantage in controlling verbal interference during spoken language comprehension’ here 

Language history questionnaire (LHQ 2.0): A new dynamic web-based research tool

Ping Li - August 2014Post written by Ping Li based on a recent article in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Language history question-naire (LHQ) is an important tool for assessing the linguistic background of language learners (background), the context and habits of language use (usage), proficiency in multiple languages (proficiency), and dominance and cultural identity of the acquired languages (dominance). Outcomes from such assessments have often been used to predict or correlate with learners’ linguistic performance in cognitive and behavioral tests. Previous researchers have often relied on LHQs that their own research groups develop, depending on whether their study is concerned with the background, usage, proficiency, or dominance of the bilingual learner. The lack of a standardized, easy-to-use, and web-based LHQ inspired some researchers to develop such a tool for bilingual research (see Li, Sepanski, & Zhao, 2006). In the LHQ 2.0, we have further developed an enhanced interface that takes advantage of the dynamic web technology, which has the following new features as compared with the original LHQ: more flexibility in functionality, more accuracy in data recording and retrieval, and more privacy for users and data.

With respect to flexibility, LHQ 2.0 allows researchers to customize their own questions depending on whether they are interested in one or a combination of the participant’s language history: background, usage, proficiency, and dominance. Additionally, the participants can complete the entire or customized LHQ online with unique experiment and participant IDs. LHQ 2.0 also has a multi-language function that allows the participant to complete questions in the native or the preferred language, including English, Chinese (simplified or traditional forms), Spanish, French, German, and Turkish (and more to come). Thus, investigators can dynamically construct individualized LHQs on the fly and collect data from a large number of individual participants simultaneously.

With respect to accuracy, LHQ 2.0 eliminates the need of traditional data entry with papers and pencils, and the potential errors during the time-consuming manual coding of handwritten results. Once the participant completes the LHQ, all the data are stored automatically in a spreadsheet, and the data are accumulated (and updated) in the order in which the questions are answered. Investigators can track the progress of the LHQ data collection, and download or delete the data at any point during the study.

With respect to privacy, LHQ 2.0 stores no personal information of the participant but rather, collects the data through automatically generated unique ID numbers for each study (and the participants), and through password-protected access to data. Researchers can (1) access their data in the cloud uniquely stored in their own account, (2) update necessary information associated with the study, (3) retrieve the data, and finally, (4) at the conclusion of the study, delete the data permanently.

A large number of investigators have already used the LHQ 2.0 in the past year, and we welcome comments and suggestions from all users. Please visit and use the LHQ 2.0 today!

Access the entire article ‘Language history questionnaire (LHQ 2.0): A new dynamic web-based research tool’ without charge here

News from the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition

Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (BLC) is now in its seventeenth year and has become the leading journal in its field enjoying a steady increase in readership and submissions. The 2012 Impact Factor mirrors this upsurge of interest. BLC’s 2012 Impact Factor is quoted as 2.229, which makes it the 5th ranked out of 160 journals in linguistics and the 27th out of 83 experimental psychology journals.

Starting from 2014, a new editorial team will officially be in charge of managing BLC. The new team consists of the two new editors-in-chief, Jubin Abutalebi and Harald Clahsen. The two new editors-in-chief have different academic backgrounds that reflect the breadth of research to be covered by BLC:  Dr. Abutalebi mainly in (cognitive) neuroscience and Dr. Clahsen mainly in (psycho)linguistics. The editors-in-chief are assisted by four associate editors, Debra Jared, Robert de Keyser, Ludovica Serratrice and Natasha Tokowicz, and two editorial assistants, Clare Patterson and Lucia Guidi.

Authors will notice changes to the submission and reviewing procedures. To make more efficient use of the limited space in BLC and to reduce the workload for our reviewers, the new editorial team has introduced strict length limitations for new submissions.  The editors would also like to highlight that Research Notes are particularly appropriate for the rapid dissemination of new findings and ideas, as final decisions on Research Notes will be taken no later than six weeks after submission, normally after only one round of reviewing.

The new editorial team has also introduced a two-stage reviewing process. The first stage consists of an in-house review aimed to triage and return any inappropriate manuscripts within two weeks of submission. Papers that are deemed suitable in terms of content and quality will enter the second stage and go out for external review.

Last but not least, the reader will notice an immediate visible change of BLC: the new cover! Indeed, BLC gets a fresh look and the editors underline that the new cover reflects the true essence of BLC: the representation and processing of bilingualism and multilingualism in the individual.

 You can view the full Editorial Board and  Instructions for Contributors on the journals homepage