Listening in the wrong language: The role of language dominance and accent in cross-language speech misperceptions

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As has been well-documented in the literature, bilinguals possess a remarkable ability to switch between their languages while interacting with other bilinguals in mixed language contexts. Despite this, bilinguals can still sometimes encounter problems. This study addresses the rare phenomenon of speech misperceptions due to non-target language processing or “listening in the wrong language” (LWL). Our primary goal was to induce LWL states using an auditory sentence verification task with a twist: participants were led to believe the experiment would be in one of their languages (the base language of the experiment) only to unexpectedly present speech in their other language (the guest language) one-third of the way through the task. Failures to comprehend were measured by including a response option for when listeners did not understand an utterance. In addition, we investigated the effect of speaker accent (native vs. non-native) and whether the language was the listener’s native (L1) or non-native (L2) language on misperceptions. The results revealed more comprehension failures for items in the guest language relative to the base language. Furthermore, the results suggest that language and accent may only initially play a role, with no significant effects observed after the guest language was presented for the first time. Moreover, listener familiarity with an accent may modulate its surprise effect. The results are discussed in the context of theories of bilingual speech comprehension.
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