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      Second language experience modulates word retrieval effort in bilinguals: evidence from pupillometry

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          Bilingual speakers often have less language experience compared to monolinguals as a result of speaking two languages and/or a later age of acquisition of the second language. This may result in weaker and less precise phonological representations of words in memory, which may cause greater retrieval effort during spoken word recognition. To gauge retrieval effort, the present study compared the effects of word frequency, neighborhood density (ND), and level of English experience by testing monolingual English speakers and native Spanish speakers who differed in their age of acquisition of English (early/late). In the experimental paradigm, participants heard English words and matched them to one of four pictures while the pupil size, an indication of cognitive effort, was recorded. Overall, both frequency and ND effects could be observed in the pupil response, indicating that lower frequency and higher ND were associated with greater retrieval effort. Bilingual speakers showed an overall delayed pupil response and a larger ND effect compared to the monolingual speakers. The frequency effect was the same in early bilinguals and monolinguals but was larger in late bilinguals. Within the group of bilingual speakers, higher English proficiency was associated with an earlier pupil response in addition to a smaller frequency and ND effect. These results suggest that greater retrieval effort associated with bilingualism may be a consequence of reduced language experience rather than constitute a categorical bilingual disadvantage. Future avenues for the use of pupillometry in the field of spoken word recognition are discussed.

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          Task-evoked pupillary responses, processing load, and the structure of processing resources.

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            Pupil diameter and load on memory.

            During a short-term memory task, pupil diameter is a measure of the amount of material which is under active processing at any time. The pupil dilates as the material is presented and constricts during report. The rate of change of these functions is related to task difficulty.
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              Pupil response as an indication of effortful listening: the influence of sentence intelligibility.

              The aim of this study was to evaluate the influence of sentence intelligibility on the pupil dilation response during listening. Task-induced pupil-dilation reflects explicit effortful processing load. Therefore, pupillometry can be used to examine the listening effort during speech perception in difficult listening conditions. We expected to find increasing pupil dilation as a function of decreasing speech intelligibility. Thirty-eight young participants (mean age = 23 yrs, SD = 3.2 yrs) with normal hearing were included. They performed three speech reception threshold (SRT) tests in which they listened to sentences in stationary noise. A one-up-one-down, two-up-one-down, or four-up-one-down adaptive procedure was applied, resulting in the correct rehearsal of 50, 71, or 84% of the sentences (SRT(50%), SRT(71%), and SRT(84%), respectively). We examined the peak dilation amplitude, the latency of the peak dilation amplitude, and the mean pupil dilation during the processing of the speech in each of these conditions. The peak dilation amplitude and mean pupil dilation were calculated relative to the baseline pupil diameter during listening to noise alone. For each SRT condition, participants rated the experienced listening effort and estimated their performance level. The signal to noise ratios (SNRs) in the SRT(50%), SRT(71%), and SRT(84%) conditions increased as a function of the speech intelligibility level. The subjective effort ratings decreased, and the estimated performance increased with increasing speech intelligibility level. Repeated measures analyses of variance indicated that peak dilation amplitude and mean pupil dilation were higher in the SRT(50%) condition as compared with the SRT(71%) and SRT(84%) conditions. The peak dilation amplitude, mean pupil dilation, and peak latency increased with decreasing SNR of the speech in noise, but no effect of noise level by itself on the baseline pupil diameter was observed. Irrespective of SNR, the pupil response was higher for incorrectly repeated sentences than for correctly repeated sentences. The analyses also indicated condition-order effects on the peak dilation amplitude and mean pupil dilatation: the pupil response was higher in the first SRT test than in the second and third tests. Within the first and third test, the baseline pupil diameter and the mean pupil dilation decreased as a function of the sentence number within the test. Spearman correlation coefficients showed no relations among the SNRs at the SRTs, subjective ratings, and the pupil response. The peak dilation amplitude, peak latency, and mean pupil dilation systematically increase with decreasing speech intelligibility. These results support that listening effort, as indicated by the pupil response, increases with decreasing speech intelligibility. This study indicates that pupillometry can be used to examine how listeners reach a certain performance level. Application of this technique to study listening effort can yield valuable insight into the processing resources required across listening conditions and into the factors related to interindividual differences in speech perception in noise.

                Author and article information

                Front Psychol
                Front Psychol
                Front. Psychol.
                Frontiers in Psychology
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                21 February 2014
                : 5
                Program of Second Language Studies, College of Arts and Letters, Michigan State University East Lansing, MI, USA
                Author notes

                Edited by: Marc Brysbaert, Ghent University, Belgium

                Reviewed by: Anna Hatzidaki, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain; Markus Conrad, Universidad de La Laguna, Spain

                *Correspondence: Jens Schmidtke, Program of Second Language Studies, College of Arts and Letters, Michigan State University, 619 Red Cedar Rd., East Lansing, MI 48824, USA e-mail: schmi474@

                This article was submitted to Language Sciences, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

                Copyright © 2014 Schmidtke.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 8, Tables: 6, Equations: 0, References: 77, Pages: 16, Words: 12855
                Original Research Article


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