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The acquisition of phonetic categories in bilingual infants: new data from an anticipatory eye movement paradigm


Bàrbara Albareda-Castellot, Department of Technology, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, C. Roc Boronat 138, Barcelona, ES 08018, Spain; e-mail:


Contrasting results have been reported regarding the phonetic acquisition of bilinguals. A lack of discrimination has been observed for certain native contrasts in 8-month-old Catalan-Spanish bilingual infants (Bosch & Sebastián-Gallés, 2003a), though not in French-English bilingual infants (Burns, Yoshida, Hill & Werker, 2007; Sundara, Polka & Molnar, 2008). At present, the data for Catalan-Spanish bilinguals constitute an exception in the early language acquisition literature. This study contributes new findings that show that Catalan-Spanish bilingual infants do not lose the capacity to discriminate native contrasts. We used an adaptation of the anticipatory eye movement paradigm (AEM; McMurray & Aslin, 2004) to explore this question. In two experiments we tested the ability of infants from Catalan and Spanish monolingual families and from Catalan-Spanish bilingual families to discriminate a Spanish-Catalan common and a Catalan-specific vowel contrast. Results from both experiments revealed that Catalan-Spanish bilingual infants showed the same discrimination abilities as those shown by their monolingual peers, even in a phonetic contrast that had not been discriminated in previous studies. Our results demonstrate that discrimination can be observed in 8-month-old bilingual infants when tested with a measure not based on recovery of attention. The high ratio of cognates in Spanish and Catalan may underlie the reason why bilinguals failed to discriminate the native vowels when tested with the familiarization-preference procedure but succeeded with the AEM paradigm.