Bilinguals learning a second language at an early age are growing in number in our increasingly global and racially mixed society. Until now, the notion has been one of unbalanced development: learning two languages simultaneously while growing up, you will have one “dominant” language that develops faster and shows a greater level of complexity than the second.
In people learning a second language later in life, the disparity between the two languages is heard as an accent in the less dominant language. Having an accent isn’t the worst thing in the world but the goal is usually to blend in and go native.
Learning a second language seems simplistic on the surface – you learn some different words and rules of grammar and bam! you’re speaking a second language. When you dig deeper, language acquisition is not rooted in words but in basic phonological sounds.
Subtle changes in when you open your mouth or start to vibrate your vocal cords changes the sounds you make. A ‘ba’ may sound like a ‘pa’ or vice versa. These unique sounds form language. When a young child is learning two languages at the same time, how do they hear and process two different sets of sounds?
According to Kalin Gonzales, a doctoral student in psychology from the University of Arizona, “There are two views: one is that bilinguals have different processing modes for their two languages – they have a mode for processing speech in one language and then a mode for processing speech in the other language. Another view is that bilinguals just adjust speech variation by recalibrating to the unique acoustic properties of each language.”
Part of a research team at the university, his team’s study results support the first view of early learner bilinguals having two separate processing modes.
Asking Spanish and English bilingual speakers who learned both languages before the age of 8 to identify whether words they heard began with a ‘ba’ or ‘pa’ sound, they found when participants were told they were hearing English sounds, they acted like English speakers and when put in Spanish mode, they acted like Spanish speakers.
“These bilinguals, hearing the exact same ‘ba’s’ and ‘pa’s’ would label them differently depending on the context.” according to co-author Andrew Lotto, associate professor of speech, language and hearing sciences at the University of Arizona.
Testing on English monolinguals did not show the same shift, reinforcing the notion of two different sounds systems for bilinguals.
“This is one of the first clear demonstrations that bilinguals really do have two different sound systems and that they can switch between one language and the other and then use that sound system.” said Lotto. “This raises the possibility that bilinguals can perceive speech like a native speaker in both languages.”
It would appear learning two languages at an early age creates two different sets of sound systems as well as the ability to switch back and forth between them, accent free.