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Sound Change and Perceptual Adaptation in English-Cantonese Bilinguals

Cantonese-English bilinguals make up a sizable population at UBC and in Metro Vancouver. This community of bilinguals is diverse, including both recent immigrants and heritage speakers of Cantonese. Heritage speakers, who learn Cantonese at home, are a highly heterogeneous group where language experiences and levels of bilingual proficiency vary widely, but they tend to be largely dominant in English, the majority language of Vancouver. This contrasts with many speakers in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the majority language, who have relatively extensive experience with English but are dominant in Cantonese. We explore the language patterns of the local Cantonese-English bilingual community in two studies.

The first study focuses on perceptual learning — listeners’ adjustment of the boundaries of sound categories when exposed to novel language input — and explores the role of language dominance on listeners’ abilities to perceptually learn. Specifically, we’re interested in how Cantonese language experience and bilinguals’ language dominance influence the level of flexibility of bilinguals’ Cantonese perceptual systems. This has interesting implications for how bilinguals perceive their languages, how they might intrinsically go about learning their languages, and whether there are differences between second language learners and native bilinguals in updating phoneme categories.

Our second study investigates the state of several Hong Kong Cantonese syllable-initial sound changes in Vancouver Cantonese speakers, focusing on the possibility of bilingual transfer from English as a driving factor in these sound changes. We are comparing Cantonese production and perception in Cantonese-English bilinguals with varying levels of bilingual dominance, including younger heritage and older first-generation immigrant speakers in Vancouver, as well as younger and older native Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong. The results of this study will help us understand more about heritage speakers and the course of sound change in immigrant populations, as well as how bilingual language transfer may motivate phonetic change.

PI: Molly Babel, Associate Professor, Linguistics. Co-investigators: Lauretta Cheng and Leighanne Chan, undergraduate students, Linguistics; Yao Yao, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.


  • Language, Sustainability and Transnationalism
  • The Communicating Mind and Body

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