Impact of second-language experience in infancy: brain measures of first- and second-language speech perception


Barbara T. Conboy, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington, Box 357988, Seattle, WA 98195-7988, USA; e-mail:


Language experience ‘narrows’ speech perception by the end of infants’ first year, reducing discrimination of non-native phoneme contrasts while improving native-contrast discrimination. Previous research showed that declines in non-native discrimination were reversed by second-language experience provided at 9–10 months, but it is not known whether second-language experience affects first-language speech sound processing. Using event-related potentials (ERPs), we examined learning-related changes in brain activity to Spanish and English phoneme contrasts in monolingual English-learning infants pre- and post-exposure to Spanish from 9.5 to 10.5 months of age. Infants showed a significant discriminatory ERP response to the Spanish contrast at 11 months (post-exposure), but not at 9 months (pre-exposure). The English contrast elicited an earlier discriminatory response at 11 months than at 9 months, suggesting improvement in native-language processing. The results show that infants rapidly encode new phonetic information, and that improvement in native speech processing can occur during second-language learning in infancy.