Matthew Halverson, University of Utah
Adults learning second languages typically exhibit a great deal of difficulty discriminating the sounds of the new language. For example, the English R and L sounds (as in ‘lead’ vs. ‘read’) are difficult for native speakers of Japanese to discriminate because there is no such sound contrast in Japanese. Despite these difficulties, some research indicates that there are cognitive benefits of being bilingual. For example, Bialystock et al. (2003) found that bilingual children performed more accurately on tasks testing phonological awareness (a measure of sound-related skills) in English when compared to monolingual English speakers. Antoniou, Best, and Tyler (2013) found that Greek-English bilinguals were better at discriminating contrastive word-initial consonants in the language Ma’di than English monolinguals—but that they performed worse than Greek monolinguals. We thus see that the apparent bilingual advantage may be confounded with the particular language backgrounds of participants in these studies. The present study attempts to tease apart the contributions of language background and bilingualism. Spanish-English bilinguals were compared to English monolinguals in their ability to discriminate Thai sounds. The predictions were that if Spanish-English bilinguals performed better than English monolinguals, it would indicate that bilingualism was responsible for the advantage. On the other hand, if there was not a significant difference or the Spanish-English bilinguals performed worse than English monolinguals, the results could be attributed to language background. We found that there was not a significant difference between how the Spanish- English bilinguals performed compared to English speakers. We note that the study, however, is limited due to a lack of a Spanish monolingual group, thus we were unable account for a possible effect of language background.