Phonetic drift in Spanish-English bilinguals: Experiment and a self-organizing model

Stephen J. Tobin, Hosung Nam, Carol A. Fowler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Citations (Scopus)


Studies of speech accommodation provide evidence for change in use of language structures beyond the critical/sensitive period. For example, Sancier and Fowler (1997) found changes in the voice-onset-times (VOTs) of both languages of a Portuguese-English bilingual as a function of her language context. Though accommodation has been studied widely within a monolingual context, it has received less attention in and between the languages of bilinguals. We tested whether these findings of phonetic accommodation, speech accommodation at the phonetic level, would generalize to a sample of Spanish-English bilinguals. We recorded participants reading Spanish and English sentences after 3–4 months in the US and after 2–4 weeks in a Spanish speaking country and measured the VOTs of their voiceless plosives. Our statistical analyses show that participants’ English VOTs drifted towards those of the ambient language, but their Spanish VOTs did not. We found considerable variation in the extent of individual participants’ drift in English. Further analysis of our results suggested that native-likeness of L2 VOTs and extent of active language use predict the extent of drift. We provide a model based on principles of self-organizing dynamical systems to account for our Spanish-English phonetic drift findings and the Portuguese-English findings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-59
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Phonetics
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Nov

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by NIH-NIDCD grant DC-002717 to Haskins Laboratories, and the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2016S1A5A2A03926788). We are also grateful to Alexander Demos for guidance on conducting statistical analyses using mixed effects models.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Elsevier Ltd


  • Bilingualism
  • Computational model
  • Dynamical systems
  • Gestural drift
  • Phonetic drift
  • Self-organization
  • Speech accommodation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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