Involuntary switching of attention mediates differences in event-related responses to complex tones between early and late Spanish-English bilinguals

Silvia Ortiz-Mantilla, Naseem Choudhury, Barbara Alvarez, April A. Benasich

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Most research with bilinguals has used speech stimuli to demonstrate differences in auditory processing abilities. Two main factors have been identified as modulators of such differences: proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language (L2). However, whether the bilingual brain differs from the monolingual in the efficient processing of non-verbal auditory events (known to be critical to the acoustic analysis of the speech stream) remains unclear. In this EEG/ERP study, using the mismatch negativity (MMN), P3a, and late negativity (LN), we examined differences in discrimination, involuntary switching of attention and reorienting of attention between monolinguals and bilinguals as they processed complex tones. Further, we examined the role that age of acquisition plays in modulating such responses. A group of English monolinguals and a group of proficient Spanish-English bilinguals were presented with a multiple-deviant oddball paradigm with four deviant conditions (duration, frequency, silent gap, and frequency modulation). Late bilinguals, who learned English after age 10, exhibited larger MMN and P3a responses than early bilinguals, across all deviant conditions. Significant associations were found between amplitude of the responses and both age of L2 acquisition and years of L2 experience. Individuals who acquired English at later ages and had fewer years of L2 experience had larger MMN, P3a, and LN responses than those who learned it earlier. These findings demonstrate that age of L2 acquisition is an important modulator of auditory responses in bilinguals even when processing non-speech signals. Involuntary attention switching is suggested as the main factor driving these differences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)78-92
Number of pages15
JournalBrain research
StatePublished - Nov 29 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


  • Basic auditory discrimination
  • Bilinguals
  • Involuntary attention switching
  • Late negativity
  • Mismatch negativity
  • P3a

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