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Cognition. 2003 Feb;87(1):B47-57.

A perceptual interference account of acquisition difficulties for non-native phonemes.

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Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, University College London, 4 Stephenson Way, London NW1 2HE, UK.


This article presents an account of how early language experience can impede the acquisition of non-native phonemes during adulthood. The hypothesis is that early language experience alters relatively low-level perceptual processing, and that these changes interfere with the formation and adaptability of higher-level linguistic representations. Supporting data are presented from an experiment that tested the perception of English /r/ and /l/ by Japanese, German, and American adults. The underlying perceptual spaces for these phonemes were mapped using multidimensional scaling and compared to native-language categorization judgments. The results demonstrate that Japanese adults are most sensitive to an acoustic cue, F2, that is irrelevant to the English /r/-/l/ categorization. German adults, in contrast, have relatively high sensitivity to more critical acoustic cues. The results show how language-specific perceptual processing can alter the relative salience of within- and between-category acoustic variation, and thereby interfere with second language acquisition.

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