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Does bilingual exposure affect infants’ use of phonetic detail in a word learning task? Fennell, Christopher Terrence

Abstract

Fourteen-month-old infants raised in a monolingual English environment confuse phonetically similar words in a word-object association task (Stager & Werker, 1997); however, older infants, who are more proficient at word learning, do not (Werker, Corcoran, Fennell, & Stager, 2000). This temporary confusion of phonetic detail occurs despite the fact that 14- month-old infants still have the ability to discriminate native language phonemes in speech perception tasks not involving word learning. Therefore, it has been hypothesized that 14- month-olds fail because linking words to objects is difficult at the beginning stages of word learning, leaving infants with insufficient attentional resources to listen closely to the words. Extending this hypothesis to infants raised in a bilingual environment generates two possibilities. (1) Bilingual infants will not show the temporary deficit at 14 months. As a function of growing up with two languages, they will have already developed a greater awareness of the sounds of words because more detail is needed to discriminate words in two languages. (2) Bilingual infants will perform at least as poorly as infants being raised with only English because of the cognitive load of learning two languages. Bilingual infants of 14 months were tested in the word-object association task using the phonetically similar labels 'bih' and 'dih' paired with two distinct and colourful moving objects. Following habituation, infants were tested on their ability to detect a 'switch' in the word-object pairing. Bilingual language exposure was assessed with a structured parental interview. The 16 infants included in the sample had been exposed to two languages from birth and had at least 30% exposure to one language and no more than 70% to the other. The results showed that, like the monolingual-learning infants of the same age, the 14-month-old bilingual-learning infants confused similar sounding words. These data are consistent with the cognitive load hypothesis, and argue against the proposition that early bilingual exposure facilitates metalinguistic awareness. Future research with slightly older bilingual word learners who have reached the age at which monolingual infants can successfully learn phonetically similar words will help to clarify if these bilingual infants maintain, or diverge from, a monolingual pattern of development.

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