Spoken word processing in bilingual older adults: Assessing within- and cross-language competition using the visual world task

Debra Titone, Julie Mercier, Aruna Sudarshan, Irina Pivneva, Jason Gullifer, and Shari Baum

Abstract

We investigated whether bilingual older adults experience within- and cross-language competition during spoken word recognition similarly to younger adults matched on age of second language (L2) acquisition, objective and subjective L2 proficiency, and current L2 exposure. In a visual world eye-tracking paradigm, older and younger adults, who were French-dominant or English-dominant English-French bilinguals, listened to English words, and looked at pictures including the target (field), a within-language competitor (feet) or cross-language (French) competitor (fille, “girl”), and unrelated filler pictures while their eye movements were monitored. Older adults showed evidence of greater within-language competition as a function of increased target and competitor phonological overlap. There was some evidence of age-related differences in cross-language competition, however, it was quite small overall and varied as a function of target language proficiency. These results suggest that greater within- and possibly cross-language lexical competition during spoken word recognition may underlie some of the communication difficulties encountered by healthy bilingual older adults.

Keywords
Publication history
Table of contents

To understand spoken language, people must map a temporally unfolding and noisy acoustic signal onto stored knowledge about words in memory. This noisy acoustic signal not only activates the intended word (i.e., a target word, such as, candle), but also words that sound similar to the intended word (i.e., competitor words, such as, candy). Although spoken word recognition models vary, they generally agree that successful comprehension requires that target word activation be enhanced and competitor word activation be inhibited (Luce & Pisoni, 1998; Marslen-Wilson & Welsh, 1978; McClelland & Elman, 1986; McQueen & Cutler, 2001; Norris, 1994). These are hypothetically distinct processes that are linked insofar as challenges to word identification caused by competitor word activation are more likely to occur when initial target word activation is compromised.

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