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J Acoust Soc Am. 2001 Feb;109(2):775-94.

Discrimination of non-native consonant contrasts varying in perceptual assimilation to the listener's native phonological system.

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Department of Psychology, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut 06459, USA.


Classic non-native speech perception findings suggested that adults have difficulty discriminating segmental distinctions that are not employed contrastively in their own language. However, recent reports indicate a gradient of performance across non-native contrasts, ranging from near-chance to near-ceiling. Current theoretical models argue that such variations reflect systematic effects of experience with phonetic properties of native speech. The present research addressed predictions from Best's perceptual assimilation model (PAM), which incorporates both contrastive phonological and noncontrastive phonetic influences from the native language in its predictions about discrimination levels for diverse types of non-native contrasts. We evaluated the PAM hypotheses that discrimination of a non-native contrast should be near-ceiling if perceived as phonologically equivalent to a native contrast, lower though still quite good if perceived as a phonetic distinction between good versus poor exemplars of a single native consonant, and much lower if both non-native segments are phonetically equivalent in goodness of fit to a single native consonant. Two experiments assessed native English speakers' perception of Zulu and Tigrinya contrasts expected to fit those criteria. Findings supported the PAM predictions, and provided evidence for some perceptual differentiation of phonological, phonetic, and nonlinguistic information in perception of non-native speech. Theoretical implications for non-native speech perception are discussed, and suggestions are made for further research.

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