Research question: We address the question of whether the cognitive advantage of the bilingual mind, already demonstrated in the case of auditory processing or novel word acquisition, also applies to other linguistic domains, specifically to phonetic and phonological learning.
Design: We compare the performance of 17 monolinguals and 25 bilinguals from Canada in a production experiment with two tasks: imitation and spontaneous reproduction of a novel foreign accent, specifically Sussex English.
Data and analysis: To eliminate potential sources of variability, our focus is on a sound already existing in the subjects’ production (the glottal stop), but differently mapped to surface representations in the novel accent to which they were exposed (i.e. as an allophone of coronal stops in word-final position). We measured the glottal stop rates of our subjects in baseline, training, and post-training.
Results: The two groups behaved differently, with bilinguals showing a larger increase of their glottal stop rate post-training. Our results are thus consistent with a bilingual advantage in phonetic and phonological learning.
Originality: We interpret these findings in light of recent psycholinguistic work and conclude that echoic memory strategies, possibly underlain by stronger subcortical encoding of sound in bilinguals, may account for our results by facilitating the re-mapping between existing mental representations of sounds and existing articulatory command configurations.
Significance: Our study adds to the body of work showing that there is an advantage of bilingualism in second dialect learning in adulthood, and provides an explanation in terms of perceptual strategies in which echoic memory is involved. We also contribute to the recent body of research suggesting that imitation of an action can result in improved understanding of that action.