Head start for target language in bilingual listening


In this study we investigated the availability of non-target language semantic features in bilingual speech processing. We recorded EEG from Dutch-English bilinguals who listened to spoken sentences in their L2 (English) or L1 (Dutch). In Experiments 1 and 3 the sentences contained an interlingual homophone. The sentence context was either biased towards the target language meaning of the homophone (target biased), the non-target language meaning (non-target biased), or neither meaning of the homophone (fully incongruent). These conditions were each compared to a semantically congruent control condition. In L2 sentences we observed an N400 in the non-target biased condition that had an earlier offset than the N400 to fully incongruent homophones. In the target biased condition, a negativity emerged that was later than the N400 to fully incongruent homophones. In L1 contexts, neither target biased nor non-target biased homophones yielded significant N400 effects (compared to the control condition). In Experiments 2 and 4 the sentences contained a language switch to a non-target language word that could be semantically congruent or incongruent. Semantically incongruent words (switched, and non-switched) elicited an N400 effect. The N400 to semantically congruent language-switched words had an earlier offset than the N400 to incongruent words. Both congruent and incongruent language switches elicited an LPC (Late Positive Component). These findings show that bilinguals activate both meanings of interlingual homophones irrespective of their contextual fit. In L2 contexts, the target-language meaning of the homophone has a head start over the non-target language meaning. The target-language head start is also evident for language switches from both L2-to-L1 and L1-to-L2.

Brain Research