Theories of lexical storage differ in how entries are encoded in the lexicon. Exemplar-based accounts posit that lexical items are stored with detailed acoustic information, while abstract accounts argue that fine acoustic detail is removed and an item is stored in more basic phonological units. These separate accounts make distinct predictions about cross-linguistic and bilingual perception. Studies asking participants to compare non-native vowels have shown that people tend to associate multiple non-native phonemes to a single L1 phoneme when the contrast between the two does not exist in the L1. However, several studies have shown that the ability to discriminate sounds is never lost. A line of research has focused on how bilinguals perceive contrasts in their second language. One such study, Pallier et al. (2001) looked at early bilinguals of Spanish and Catalan, testing whether the native Spanish speakers, who were highly proficient in Catalan, perceived certain Catalan minimal pairs as homophones. Importantly, the contrasts of these minimal pairs were exclusive to Catalan. The native Spanish bilinguals heard pairs such as /neta/-/nεta/ in an audio-only lexical decision task (LDT), and showed responses to the second item that were not significantly different from actual item repetitions (i.e., /neta/-/neta/). These results were taken as evidence in favor of abstractionist models of lexical storage. This study was based on Pallier et al, (2001), examining instead the perceptions of heritage speakers of Spanish (HSSs) in the U.S., children of native Spanish speakers who get early and sustained exposure to their second language, English. Unlike the bilinguals studied in Pallier et al., heritage bilinguals receive little linguistic or social support for development of their first language. The L1 proficiency of adult heritage bilinguals varies considerably. In this study, a group of these HSSs participated in an LDT testing their perception of English-exclusive phonemic vowel contrasts (i.e., peak-pick). It was hypothesized that, like Pallier et al.'s highly proficient bilinguals, HSSs would show responses to the second item of these minimal pairs as if it were a repetition of the first. Results of the LDT did not confirm the hypothesis. The heritage Spanish speakers did not perform significantly differently from the native English controls on English-specific contrasts (p = .065), and it was found that the native English speakers showed higher priming on these minimal pairs than HSSs. These results run counter to those of previous studies, and may disfavor an abstract account of lexical storage. At the very least, the construct validity of this methodology is questionable when the control and experimental participants reverse hypothesized behavior.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



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perception, lexical storage, bilingualism, heritage bilinguals



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Linguistics Commons