Edited by Gisela Granena, Daniel O. Jackson and Yucel Yilmaz
[Bilingual Processing and Acquisition 3] 2016
► pp. 249–277
Executive control and phonological processing in language acquisition
The role of early bilingual experience in learning an additional language
This chapter discusses the relationship between cognitive control and phonological processing in a second language (L2). Cognitive control is globally referred to as executive functions, mainly consisting of attention control, working memory and inhibitory control. Our research examines how dealing with multiple languages early on relates to differences in cognitive abilities, and how individual differences in cognitive abilities in turn impact phonological processing in L2. Building on evidence that functional bilinguals develop fine-grained advantages in cognitive control over monolinguals (Bialystok 2011), we investigate whether language learners with greater cognitive control are also better equipped to acquire a new phonological system. We report on data from two groups of L2 learners (L1 Spanish) who started learning English during adolescence. One group of learners grew up in a Spanish monolingual environment; the other grew up in a bilingual environment (Spanish/Catalan). The early bilingual participants used both Catalan and Spanish daily, but differed in the amount of use of their less dominant language (either Catalan or Spanish). We measured attention control, phonological memory and inhibitory control, and assessed L2 phonological processing skills via a perception task. The results indicate that phonological short-term memory and inhibition are related to L2-phonological processing, but not in the same way for all groups. The relationship interacts with the participants’ linguistic profile. Specifically, inhibitory control strongly correlates with L2 phonological processing for the participants from the monolingual environment: participants with stronger inhibitory control were more accurate in the perception task. This relationship was not visible for the participants with bilingual experience. We propose that the effects of individual differences in inhibitory control for these bilinguals might have been “washed out” due to the daily practice they receive in inhibiting one language over the other.