Research team


Why is it so hard to get rid of your foreign accent and do you still mix up “buur” and “boer” in Dutch? How do you finally master those irregular grammar rules and know that “la seule femme” and “la femme seule” do not mean the same in French? How is your native language reflected in your second language and vice versa? These are some of the questions I aim to answer in my research into multilingualism. All languages are composed of building blocks such as sounds and words, which we use to build sentences. These building blocks as well as information on how to combine those are stored in our brain. When we talk or listen, our brain is searching for the corresponding sounds and words and combines them to form sentences. This process usually runs smoothly in our native language, but when we learn a second language, we often struggle with the new sounds and grammar. I investigate how we store and process a second language in our brain. In my research, I use language experiments. I invite participants to perform an easy task, such as reading words or describing pictures. Meanwhile, I measure reaction times, eye movements or brain activity to learn about second language processing. What knowledge to the participants store about their (second) language) and how do they use this knowledge during language processing? During my PhD project, I investigated how people learn sentence structures in their second language, such as the passive structure “The balloon is released by the child”. For instance, I tested whether the way you learn new sentence structures is influenced by the presence of similar structures in your native language. I discovered that bilingual students who were raised with both Dutch and Arabic or Berber tend to just say “The balloon is released” (and leave out “by the child”), as this is also more common in Arabic and Berber. Even if bilinguals use the language flawlessly, we can still recognize traces of one language in the other language! In my current post-doc project, I investigate how language learners store the sounds of the new language in their brain, especially if those sounds do not occur in their native language or are used differently. For example, I investigate why speakers of Dutch have so much trouble producing the th-sound in English. Do they lack the right knowledge on how the sound is supposed to be, or are they hindered in using their knowledge during language production? By means of a range of experiments I try to gain more insight into language processing in multilinguals.

The Features of Fuzzy Representations: How do language learners specify foreign sounds? 01/10/2023 - 30/09/2026


When language learners speak their foreign language, their accent usually betrays them as being non-native, even at a very high level of proficiency. The sounds of a language are stored in phonological representations defining lexical contrasts, such as the distinction between the words "bad" and "bed". Languages differ in the phonological representations speakers have, for instance in terms of phoneme inventory (i.e., the available sounds of the language) and phonemic contrasts. Although second language (L2) speakers may have difficulties to perceive or to produce non-native sounds, they do develop distinct phonological representations of new sounds and sound contrasts. However, the exact nature of these L2 phonological representations is yet unclear. They may include "fuzzy" representations of L2 sounds, in which learners re-apply features from representations in their first language (L1) in a different context, or leave certain features of the L2 sounds unspecified. The current project aims to study the nature of these fuzzy phonological L2 representations. We will conduct a series of experiments testing L2 speakers of English with Dutch as their L1 on L2 sounds that differ between the languages. We contrast different L2 sounds to test whether their phonological features (mis)match or not. We aim to investigate for what non-native features L2 speakers store a specified phonological representation to gain a better understanding of the causes of a foreign speech accent.


Research team(s)

Project type(s)

  • Research Project