Linguistic Prominence of Pitch within the Native Language Determines Accuracy of Tone Processing
Vance Schaefer and Isabelle Darcy
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Convergent results from second language (L2) phonology literature suggest that when a phonetic or linguistic dimension is present or important in the first language (L1) of a learner, acquiring words that use this dimension in an L2 will be facilitated (Feature Hypothesis, McAllister, Flege & Piske, 2002). This study applies this concept of prominence to the dimension of linguistic pitch by testing naive listeners (=non-learners) from L1s which utilize lexically-contrastive pitch with varying functional prominence to signal lexical contrast—Mandarin (tone = high prominence), Japanese (pitch accent = intermediate), English (word stress = reduced), and Korean (not using pitch to distinguish words = low)—on their perception of Thai tones. Our research investigates whether speakers of various L1s differ in their perception of non-native tone; whether the varying degree of pitch prominence in the L1 aids in the perception of non-native tone, thus resulting in a linguistic hierarchy of perception accuracy; and whether speakers employ pitch height, pitch direction, or both in the perception of non-native tone. To evaluate listeners' perception of tones in terms of pitch height and direction, a computer-based AXB task presented the three flat and two contour tones of Thai in various combinations and recorded both accuracy rates and reaction times (RTs). The following hierarchy (from most accurate/fastest to least accurate/slowest) was predicted in the ability to discriminate tone: L1 Thai speakers > L1 Mandarin speakers > L1 Japanese speakers > L1 English speakers > L1 Korean speakers. Non-native listeners of each L1 conformed to the predicted accuracy hierarchy, and also differed in their ability to track pitch height or direction with the exception of the English group. Results suggest that the presence of lexically-contrastive pitch to distinguish vocabulary items in the L1 shapes the naive perception of non-native tones in a positive manner. As a result, referencing the Feature Hypothesis, we put forth the Pitch Prominence Hypothesis: the greater the prominence of lexically-contrastive pitch in the L1, the more accurate the perception of non-native lexically-contrastive pitch.
Selected Proceedings of the 2012 Second Language Research Forum: Building Bridges between Disciplines
edited by Ryan T. Miller, Katherine I. Martin, Chelsea M. Eddington, Ashlie Henery, Nausica Marcos Miguel, Alison M. Tseng, Alba Tuninetti, and Daniel Walter
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