Indexed on: 29 Apr '10Published on: 29 Apr '10Published in: Psychological Science
Individuals who speak more than one language often do so with a foreign accent in their second language. Previous investigations have focused on the acoustic phonetic properties of speech, showing how language-learning history shapes the occurrence of accent. By contrast, little is known about the phonological and phonetic representations that allow the production of each language within one speaker. We investigated this issue via the syllable-frequency effect, thought to index the retrieval of syllable-size representations during speech production. We tested French-Spanish early and late bilinguals in a task in which the materials' syllabic frequency in both languages was manipulated. The frequency of syllables in the nonspoken language affected performance only with late bilinguals. This is interpreted as evidence that syllabic representations are shared across languages in late bilinguals but are separate in early bilinguals. One of the functional origins of foreign accent in late bilinguals may be the retrieval of syllabic representations shared across languages.