Speech perception in noise is challenging, but evidence suggests that it may be facilitated by visual speech cues (e.g., lip movements) and supportive sentence context in native speakers. Comparatively few studies have investigated speech perception in noise in bilinguals, and little is known about the impact of visual speech cues and supportive sentence context in a first language compared to a second language within the same individual. The current study addresses this gap by directly investigating the extent to which bilinguals benefit from visual speech cues and supportive sentence context under similarly noisy conditions in their first and second language.
Thirty young adult English–French/French–English bilinguals were recruited from the undergraduate psychology program at Concordia University and from the Montreal community. They completed a speech perception in noise task during which they were presented with video-recorded sentences and instructed to repeat the last word of each sentence out loud. Sentences were presented in three different modalities: visual-only, auditory-only, and audiovisual. Additionally, sentences had one of two levels of context: moderate (e.g., “In the woods, the hiker saw a bear.”) and low (e.g., “I had not thought about that bear.”). Each participant completed this task in both their first and second language; crucially, the level of background noise was calibrated individually for each participant and was the same throughout the first language and second language (L2) portions of the experimental task.
Overall, speech perception in noise was more accurate in bilinguals’ first language compared to the second. However, participants benefited from visual speech cues and supportive sentence context to a proportionally greater extent in their second language compared to their first. At the individual level, performance during the speech perception in noise task was related to aspects of bilinguals’ experience in their second language (i.e., age of acquisition, relative balance between the first and the second language).
Bilinguals benefit from visual speech cues and sentence context in their second language during speech in noise and do so to a greater extent than in their first language given the same level of background noise. Together, this indicates that L2 speech perception can be conceptualized within an inverse effectiveness hypothesis framework with a complex interplay of sensory factors (i.e., the quality of the auditory speech signal and visual speech cues) and linguistic factors (i.e., presence or absence of supportive context and L2 experience of the listener).