Understanding speech in noise is a fundamental challenge for speech comprehension. This perceptual demand is amplified in a second language: It is a common experience in bars, train stations, and other noisy environments that degraded signal quality severely compromises second language comprehension. Through a novel design, paired with a carefully selected participant profile, we independently assessed signal-driven and knowledge-driven contributions to the brain bases of first versus second language processing. We were able to dissociate the neural processes driven by the speech signal from the processes that come from speakers' knowledge of their first versus second languages. The neurophysiological data show that, in combination with impaired access to top–down linguistic information in the second language, the locus of bilinguals' difficulty in understanding second language speech in noisy conditions arises from a failure to successfully perform a basic, low-level process: cortical entrainment to speech signals above the syllabic level.

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