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J Acoust Soc Am. 2010 Jul;128(1):456-65. doi: 10.1121/1.3445785.

Individual variability in cue-weighting and lexical tone learning.

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Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA.


Speech sound patterns can be discerned using multiple acoustic cues. The relative weighting of these cues is known to be language-specific. Speech-sound training in adults induces changes in cue-weighting such that relevant acoustic cues are emphasized. In the current study, the extent to which individual variability in cue weighting contributes to differential success in learning to use foreign sound patterns was examined. Sixteen English-speaking adult participants underwent a sound-to-meaning training paradigm, during which they learned to incorporate Mandarin linguistic pitch contours into words. In addition to cognitive tests, measures of pitch pattern discrimination and identification were collected from all participants. Reaction time data from the discrimination task was subjected to 3-way multidimensional scaling to extract dimensions underlying tone perception. Two dimensions relating to pitch height and pitch direction were found to underlie non-native tone space. Good learners attended more to pitch direction relative to poor learners, before and after training. Training increased the ability to identify and label pitch direction. The results demonstrate that variability in the ability to successfully learn to use pitch in lexical contexts can be explained by pre-training differences in cue-weighting.

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