Audiovisual Cues in Bilingual Language Acquisition

Article title: Bilingualism modulates infants’ selective attention to the mouth of a talking face

Authors: Pons, F., Bosch, L., & Lewkowicz, D.J.

INTRODUCTION (379 words)

This paper explores audiovisual cues’ important role in bilingual language acquisition and processing. They conducted two experiments to (1) extend the findings of the Lewkowicz & Hansen-Tift study (2012) studies to pertain to monolingual infants of non-English native languages (Spanish/Catalan), (2) determine how the developmental process of language acquisition through audiovisual information is different for bilinguals, and (3) examine whether bilingual infants focus more on a speaker’s mouth than monolinguals. The Lewkowicz & Hansen-Tift study (2012) found that for monolingual infants of English followed a particular developmental pattern: at 4-months infants looked more at the eyes of a speaker and at 8-months this attention switched to focus more on the mouth.

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Using eye tracking while the infants watched videos of two females reciting a monologue in Spanish, Catalan or English, they measured the infants’ attention to areas of interest (mouth and eyes). The authors predicted that bilingual children would spend more time attending to the mouth and eyes of the speaker than monolingual children “to learn the specific properties of each language” and to continue to use this mechanism to discriminate between languages after the initial stages of language acquisition.

Previous studies demonstrated that monolingual and bilingual babies have similar timelines in terms of language development such as babbling skills and phonological differentiation (Oller, Eilers, Urbano & Cobo-Lewis, 1997, Bosch & Sebastián-Gallés, 2001b) which is why it is crucial to study whether attentional shifts during development occur similarly for monolingual and bilingual infants as well. It has also been shown that bilingual children, due to their particularly complex linguistic systems, must have certain mechanisms to quickly separate and differentiate between their two language systems. This includes greater “sensitivity to lexical stress” (Bijeljac-Babic, Serres, Höhle, & Nazzi, 2012) and studies that illustrate the importance of visual cues for distinguishing between spoken native and non-native languages (Sebastián-Gallés, Albareda- Castellot, Weikum, & Werker, 2012; Weikum et al., 2007). Significant research has been conducted to explore the auditory domain of bilingual language acquisition and there is strong evidence that both bilinguals and monolinguals rely on redundant audiovisual speech (Rosenblum, 2008; Stein, 2012; Sebastián-Gallés et al., 2012). However, this paper seeks to understand the importance of audiovisual cues as a mechanism that bilingual infants utilize during complex language processing in comparison to monolingual infants.

METHODS (234 words)

To test these predictions they conducted two experiments each on infants whose native languages were Spanish/Catalan.

The goal of the first experiment was to extend the findings of previous studies about monolingual, native English speaking, infants’ use of audiovisual speech cues to infants whose native languages are either Spanish or Catalan. Sixty monolingual infants (with native languages of either Spanish or Catalan) participated in this experiment and formed three groups: 4, 8 and 12 month-old infants with 20 participants in each group. Stimuli, 45-second videos of one of two female actors speaking a monologue in English or Spanish/Catalan, were presented on a computer screen in front of the infant. Each infant watched one video of a monologue in their native language and a second video of a monologue in English. Throughout the procedure, an eye-tracker was utilized to enable researchers to collect data about their attention to two areas of interest (AOI), the speaker’s mouth and eyes.

The second experiment investigated how bilingual infants’ selective attention to these AOI changes and develops in their first year of life. 63 Spanish-Catalan bilingual infants (once again divided into groups of 4, 8 and 12-month-olds) were presented with the same stimuli as in the first experiment and researchers tracked their eye movements to AOI. They conducted a Mann-Whitney test to compare the vocabularies of the monolingual and bilingual infants and found no significant difference between their lexica.

DISCUSSION (399 words)

The results from the first experiment successfully extended the findings of Lewkowicz and Hansen Tift’s (2012) study to monolingual speakers in Spain of Catalan or Spanish. They saw the same developmental trends with language acquisition and attention to AOI with this group of infants: when presented with both native and non-native audiovisual stimuli 4-month-old infants spent more time attending to the eyes of the speaker and 8-month-old infants spend more time attending to the mouth of the speaker. When presented with stimuli in their native language, the 12-month-old infants spent equal time looking at the mouth and eyes but with stimuli in their non-native language they spent more time looking at the mouth than the eyes.

One of the most intriguing comparisons explores the differences between the monolingual and bilingual infants’ developmental pattern of attention during audiovisual stimuli presentation (comparing Experiment 1 and 2). They found the biggest differences at 4-months and 12-months. 4-month-old bilingual infants attended equally to the mouth and eyes while the 4-month-old monolinguals spent more time attending to the eyes. 12-month-old bilingual infants spent more time attending to the mouth in both native and non-native language presentation while the monolinguals attended more to the mouth only in non-native trials. On average the bilingual infants spent more time attending to the mouth of the speaker than monolinguals at their same age.

These findings support evidence that audio input is not the sole contributor to language acquisition and differentiation. Visual cues are crucial in understanding and interpreting speech because there is not a 1:1 relationship between speech signals and meaning; we must use hermeneutics and external cues to make sense of language. The McGurk Effect demonstrates this idea: when just using audio input a person hears “ba, ba” but when provided with audiovisual stimulus, a person hears “da da” as a result of hearing “ba, ba” but seeing the mouth produce “ga ga.” These early studies illustrate the importance of visual input but do not explore how this reliance on external cues during development is different for bilinguals. This paper offers fascinating evidence that shows how monolingual and bilingual infants rely on audiovisual input to acquire, perceive and comprehend language.

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Research still must explore how these effects continue after 12 months old, once native and non-native language systems are more defined: do bilingual young adults still look more at the mouth than the eyes of a speaker?


Bijeljac-Babic, R., Serres, J., Höhle, B., & Nazzi, T. (2012). Effect of bilingualism on lexical stress pattern discrimination in French-learning infants. PLoS ONE7(2), e30843.

Bosch, L., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2001b). Evidence of early language discrimination abilities in infants from bilingual environments. Infancy2, 29-49.

Lewkowicz, D. J., & Hansen-Tift, A. M. (2012). Infants deploy selective attention to the mouth of a talking face when learning speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA109, 1431-1436.

Oller, D. K., Eilers, R. E., Urbano, R., & Cobo-Lewis, A. B. (1997). Development of precursors to speech in infants exposed to two languages. Journal of Child Language24, 407-426.

Pons, F., Bosch, L., & Lewkowicz, D.J. (2014). Bilingualism modulates infants’ selective attention to the mouth of a talking face. Psychological Science26.4, 490-498.

Rosenblum, L. D. (2008). Speech perception as a multimodal phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science17, 405-409.

Stein, B. E. (2012). The new handbook of multisensory process- ing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weikum, W. M., Vouloumanos, A., Navarra, J., Soto-Faraco, S., Sebastián-Gallés, N., & Werker, J. F. (2007). Visual lan- guage discrimination in infancy. Science316, 1159.

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