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Early steps in bilingualism: Infant studies

Project coordinator: Núria Sebastian Gallés.

Project members: Laura Bosch, Ferran Pons, Salvador Soto-Faraco, Juan Manuel Toro, Volker Ressel, Marta Ramon, Bàrbara Albareda. 



Research in the language development of preverbal infants exposed to a bilingual environment has revealed the existence of important similarities, but also significant differences in the way monolinguals-to-be and bilinguals-to-be solve the problem of language acquisition. The goal of this project is to understand the origin and scope of these differences. The research subprojects included here have explored the processes underlying perceptual narrowing and the early representation of words. 

SUBPROJECT 1: PERCEPTUAL NARROWING.  Early sensitivity to non-native phonetic contrasts declines as infants acquire experience with native perceptual inputs. The studies carried out in this research line have advanced our understanding of two relevant research questions in the process of perceptual narrowing. The first one is the explanation of the different developmental path in bilingual infants (often described as a developmental delay). The second research question involves the interplay between visual and auditory information.

(A) Are bilingual infants delayed in the establishing of their phonetic categories? Previous research with 4-, 8- and 12-month-old Catalan-Spanish bilingual infants offered evidence of a U-shaped pattern in their ability to discriminate language-specific vowel contrasts. To account for this pattern of results it was hypothesized that the specific distribution of the three phonemes in the bilingual space led bilingual infants to consider them as a single category. Sebastian-Gallés and Bosch (2009) disproved an explanation based solely on a distributional account. The same pattern of results was obtained with bilingual infants when tested with the common Spanish-Catalan contrast /o-u/, in spite of the fact that these are common vowels and do not form a single distribution. Using an anticipatory eye movement procedure, Albareda-Castellot, Pons and Sebastián-Gallés (in press) have challenged the hypothesis that bilingual infants may be impaired in their capacity to perceive these phonetic contrasts. Eight-month old Spanish-Catalan bilinguals performed like Catalan monolinguals, while Spanish infants could not discriminate them. We proposed that task demands (together with some specificity of the languages involved) may have been responsible for previous discrimination failures with bilingual infants.

(B) The interaction of visual and auditory information in perceptual narrowing. Pons, Lewkowicz, Soto-Faraco and Sebastián-Gallés provided the first evidence that perceptual narrowing also occurs in infant response to multisensory speech. We tested separate groups of 6- and 11-month-old Spanish- and English-learning infants to determine whether they could match the visual and auditory phonetic information specifying the English contrast /ba/ - /va/, which does not exist in Spanish. English-learning infants exhibited successful intersensory matching at both ages. In contrast, younger, but not older, Spanish-learning infants exhibited successful intersensory matching. These results reveal that the perceptual system becomes increasingly more tuned to key native language audiovisual correspondences.

SUBPROJECT 2: BILINGUALS’ EARLY LEXICAL REPRESENTATIONS. Ramon-Casas, Swingley, Sebastián-Gallés and Bosch (2009) analyzed the responses of Spanish and Catalan monolingual and Catalan-Spanish bilingual toddlers to words in a sentence-picture matching task. In this procedure children are presented with two pictures side by side, and then hear either a sentence containing one of the words depicting one of the images or a sentence containing a pseudo-word which is a minimal pair of one of the pictures (a mispronunciation). When hearing mispronunciations, children tend to look at the named picture less than when hearing the correct pronunciations. In our study the critical pseudo-words were made by exchanging vowels from the Catalan-specific /e-ε/ contrast. Eighteen-month old Catalan monolinguals looked less at the corresponding picture when the sentence (in Catalan) contained a mispronunciation involving this contrast. However, neither Spanish monolinguals (who were tested with Spanish sentences), nor Catalan-Spanish bilingual toddlers (who were tested in Catalan) looked differently at correct words and mispronunciations. None of the participants had difficulty detecting mispronunciations involving phonemic contrasts existing in the two languages. This lack of sensitivity to mispronunciations was also observed with 3-4 year olds. The results indicate that bilingual toddlers may be delayed in establishing functional representations in each of their languages. However, more recent data have challenged this conclusion, as it has been observed that the lack of sensitivity disappears when bilingual infants are tested with non-cognate words (Ramon-Casas & Bosch, 2010)


  1. Structural generalizations over consonants and vowels in 11-month-old infants (Pons & Toro)
  2. How input interplays with initial biases: Asymmetries in vowel perception during the first year of life (Albareda-Castellot, Pons & Sebastian-Galles)
  3. Early emergence of episodic memory in early infancy (Ressel & Sebastián-Gallés)


Figure 1. The capacity of monolingual (Sp & Cat) and Sp-Cat bilingual infants (4- 8- & 12- mo-olds) to show discrimination behavior between the Spanish and Catalan common contrast /o/-/u/ was tested using a familiarization procedure. All groups showed an increase in attention times when stimuli of a different category were presented in the test phase, except 8-mo-old bilingual infants.