The literature on the neurobiological correlates of bilingualism is vast. Yet, despite this wealth of knowledge and the worldwide prevalence of bilingualism, comparatively little is known about how being exposed to multiple spoken languages influences how sound is processed by the brain. Over the past decade, the frequency-following response (FFR) has emerged as an important electrophysiological tool for studying individual variability in the neural processing of sound associated with language, as well as music, behaviors. The FFR, an electrical potential recorded at the scalp, is a phase-locked response to periodic aspects of sound (e.g. vowels, vocal pitch contours) that reflects a composite of multiple generators within the auditory neuroaxis, extending from the 8th nerve to auditory cortex. This talk will survey a recent series of studies that have used the FFR to examine the influence of bilingual experience on the developing and mature auditory systems. The discussion will center on facets of second language (L2) learning that have emerged as likely contributor to auditory neural function, including the age of L2 acquisition, the amount and intensity of language exposure, and the relative mastery of the first and second languages. Interacting variables, such as socioeconomic status and music training, will be highlighted. The talk will also consider how this new line of research fits within the larger debates on the neural generators of the FFR and the sensorineural and neurocognitive advantages and disadvantages of being bilingual.
Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences; Affiliate of the Department of Psychological Sciences, Cognitive Sciences Program, Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences; University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269 USA