Performance-based studies on the psychological nature of linguistic competence can conceal significant differences in the brain processes that underlie native versus nonnative knowledge of language. Here we report results from the brain activity of very proficient early bilinguals making a lexical decision task that illustrates this point. Two groups of Spanish-Catalan early bilinguals (Spanish-dominant and Catalan-dominant) were asked to decide whether a given form was a Catalan word or not. The nonwords were based on real words, with one vowel changed. In the experimental stimuli, the vowel change involved a Catalan-specific contrast that previous research had shown to be difficult for Spanish natives to perceive. In the control stimuli, the vowel switch involved contrasts common to Spanish and Catalan. The results indicated that the groups of bilinguals did not differ in their behavioral and event-related brain potential measurements for the control stimuli; both groups made very few errors and showed a larger N400 component for control nonwords than for control words. However, significant differences were observed for the experimental stimuli across groups: Specifically, Spanish-dominant bilinguals showed great difficulty in rejecting experimental nonwords. Indeed, these participants not only showed very high error rates for these stimuli, but also did not show an error-related negativity effect in their erroneous nonword decisions. However, both groups of bilinguals showed a larger correct-related negativity when making correct decisions about the experimental nonwords. The results suggest that although some aspects of a second language system may show a remarkable lack of plasticity (like the acquisition of some foreign contrasts), first-language representations seem to be more dynamic in their capacity of adapting and incorporating new information.

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