From phoneme to lexicon in non-native listening

TitleFrom phoneme to lexicon in non-native listening
Publication TypePresentation
Year of Publication2004
Conference NameWorkshop on First and Second Language Acquisition
AuthorsCutler, Anne, Andrea Weber, and Takshi Otake
PublisherNederlandse Vereniging voor Fonetische Wetenschappen
Conference LocationNijmegen, The Netherlands

When phonemic contrasts of first and second languages mismatch, native phonemic categories can capture second-language input. This effect can have far-reaching consequences for understanding:

  1. Spurious word activation. Broersma (2002) showed that Dutch listeners accepted non-words such as chass and lem as English words (chess, lamb); such sequences can occur in spoken English (chastise, lemon), possibly activating more competitor words for non-native than for native listeners. (See also Broersma's abstract.).
  2. Pseudo-homophony. Homophones like [mi:t] must be disambiguated via context (let's meet, grill meat). If failure to distinguish contrasts induces homophony, then non-native listeners will have to do such disambiguation via context more often than native listeners.
  3. Temporary ambiguity. Weber and Cutler (2004) tested Dutch listeners to English in an eye-tracking experiment, and found that they fixated longer on distractor pictures with names containing vowels confusable with vowels in a target name (pencil, given target panda) than on less confusable distractors (beetle, given target bottle). English native listeners did not do this.

However, Weber and Cutler also found that the confusability was asymmetric: given pencil as target, panda did not distract more than distinct competitors. They suggested that stored representations may maintain second-language distinctions even when native phonemic categories effectively over-rule the distinctions in input processing.

A subsequent experiment tests for such asymmetry with Japanese listeners' perception of English r/l contrasts. We also tested for asymmetry in non-natives' pseudo-homophony, via a lexical decision study examining repetition priming. English materials, presented to Dutch and Japanese listeners, included pairs such as cattle/kettle and right/light. Dutch listeners responded significantly faster to one member of a cattle/kettle pair after having heard the other member earlier (compared with having heard a control word), suggesting that both words had been activated whichever had been heard. Japanese listeners, however, showed no such priming for cattle/kettle words, but did show repetition priming across r/l pairs (e.g. right/light).