Both the timing (i.e., when) and amount (i.e., how much) of language exposure affect language-learning outcomes. We compared speech recognition accuracy across three listener groups for whom the order (first versus second) and dominance (dominant versus non-dominant) of two languages, English and Spanish, varied: one group of Spanish heritage speakers (SHS; L2-English dominant; L1-Spanish non-dominant) and two groups of late onset L2 learners (L1-dominant English/Spanish learners and L1-dominant Spanish/English learners). Sentence-final word recognition accuracy in both English and Spanish was assessed across three “easy” versus “difficult” listening conditions: (1) signal-to-noise ratio (SNR; +5 dB SNR versus 0 dB SNR), (2) sentence predictability (high versus low sentence predictability), and (3) speech style (clear versus plain speech style). Overall, SHS English recognition accuracy was equivalent to that of the L1-dominant English Spanish learners, whereas SHS Spanish recognition accuracy was substantially lower than that of the L1-dominant Spanish English learners. Moreover, while SHS benefitted in both languages from the “easy” listening conditions, they were more adversely affected by (i.e., they recognized fewer words) the presence of higher noise and lower predictability in their non-dominant L1 Spanish compared to their dominant L2 English. These results identify both a benefit and limit on the influence of early exposure. Specifically, the L2-dominant heritage speakers displayed L1-like speech recognition in their dominant-L2, as well as generally better recognition in their non-dominant L1 than late onset L2 learners. Yet, subtle recognition accuracy differences between SHS and L1-dominant listeners emerged under relatively difficult communicative conditions.
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