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Tracking ethnicity-language co-occurrences among 10-month-old bilingual infants Hu, Shun-Fu


It is known that bilingual infants can separate languages based on linguistic cues and silent faces. It is also argued by Kandhadai, Danielson and Werker (2014) that bilinguals track the co-occurrences between language and other contextual cues. Given these findings, the current study asks if ethnicity of faces, as the contextual cue, selectively activates the discrimination of sound in the language most frequently experienced with that ethnicity. Specifically, we ask if 10-month-old Chinese-English learning bilinguals activate Chinese sound discrimination to a greater extent when primed with East Asian faces than when primed with Caucasian faces, and conversely, if Caucasian priming activates English sound discrimination to a greater extent than East Asian faces in bilinguals. To test this hypothesis, we recruited 48 bilinguals and 67 English learning monolingual 10-month-olds. Both groups were first shown static images of either Caucasian or East Asian faces to prime them with the ethnicity associated with one of their languages. Next, in the habituation phase, they were repeatedly presented with either one Chinese (non-English) or English (non-Chinese) syllable accompanied with a visual stimulus. After the infants’ looking time dropped significantly, the 2-trial test phase began: the “same” trial comprised the same syllables as in the previous phase, while the “switch” trial comprised a minimally-contrastive syllable in the same language. Infants’ discriminatory ability was inferred from the increased looking time to the “switch” trial from the “same” trial. The results for Chinese provided support for our hypothesis: bilinguals discriminated the Chinese contrast better when primed with East Asian faces than in the Caucasian priming condition. The results for English are more difficult to interpret: Caucasian faces did not facilitate English discrimination by the bilinguals, but even English monolingual learning infants failed to discriminate the English contrast. Analyses in the priming and habituation phase collectively suggest that the absence of an effect for English could be due to the paucity of exposure to Caucasian faces, or to the difficulty of the English contrast, but not to the inability to track language-ethnicity co-occurrences. The meaning of these results is discussed.

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