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Differences in word recognition between early bilinguals and monolinguals: Behavioral and ERP evidence


Hulten,  Annika
Cognitive Brain Research Unit, Cognitive Science, Institute of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland;
Department of Psychology and Logopedics, Abo Akademi University, Finland;
Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Turku, Finland;
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society, Nijmegen, NL;

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Lehtonen, M., Hulten, A., Rodríguez-Fornells, A., Cunillera, T., Tuomainen, J., & Laine, M. (2012). Differences in word recognition between early bilinguals and monolinguals: Behavioral and ERP evidence. Neuropsychologia, 50, 1362-1371. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.02.021.

We investigated the behavioral and brain responses (ERPs) of bilingual word recognition to three fundamental psycholinguistic factors, frequency, morphology, and lexicality, in early bilinguals vs. monolinguals. Earlier behavioral studies have reported larger frequency effects in bilingualś nondominant vs. dominant language and in some studies also when compared to corresponding monolinguals. In ERPs, language processing differences between bilinguals vs. monolinguals have typically been found in the N400 component. In the present study, highly proficient Finnish-Swedish bilinguals who had acquired both languages during childhood were compared to Finnish monolinguals during a visual lexical decision task and simultaneous ERP recordings. Behaviorally, we found that the response latencies were overall longer in bilinguals than monolinguals, and that the effects for all three factors, frequency, morphology, and lexicality were also larger in bilinguals even though they had acquired both languages early and were highly proficient in them. In line with this, the N400 effects induced by frequency, morphology, and lexicality were larger for bilinguals than monolinguals. Furthermore, the ERP results also suggest that while most inflected Finnish words are decomposed into stem and suffix, only monolinguals have encountered high frequency inflected word forms often enough to develop full-form representations for them. Larger behavioral and neural effects in bilinguals in these factors likely reflect lower amount of exposure to words compared to monolinguals, as the language input of bilinguals is divided between two languages.