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Bilingual people hear differently

Researchers say each language has its own ‘sound system’ and bilingual people switch automatically

21 May 2013

PEOPLE who are bilingual from an early age pick up an ability to switch between different “sound systems” for each language, researchers say in a report in the journal Psychological Science.

University of Arizona student Kalim Gonzales, the lead author, said such bilinguals learn two separate processing modes and this challenged the traditional view that bilingual people always had one dominant language.

He said they could possibly “perceive speech like a native speaker in both languages”.

They were able to categorise the sound systems such as the aspirate H of English, the nasal French and rolled R of Spanish without mixing them up – as if they had a switch to move into each language.

Co-author Andrew Lotto said that the “pa” and “ba” sounds existed in both English and Spanish but had subtle differences in each. English-only speakers could confuse the sounds in Spanish, but bilinguals were able to pick it up even from just the opening of the lips.

Earlier this year, a study published in LiveScience said that older bilingual adults who had spoken two languages since childhood had an ability to adapt to new unfamiliar situations quicker than monolingual adults.

It said they were adept at switching between cognitive tasks and it was possible that this boosted brain function.
Photo: Ashok Prabhakaran

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