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Echoes of L1 Syllable Structure in L2 Phoneme Recognition

  • Yasufuku, Kanako
  • Doyle, Gabriel
Published Article
Frontiers in Psychology
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
Jul 20, 2021
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.515237
  • Psychology
  • Original Research


Learning to move from auditory signals to phonemic categories is a crucial component of first, second, and multilingual language acquisition. In L1 and simultaneous multilingual acquisition, learners build up phonological knowledge to structure their perception within a language. For sequential multilinguals, this knowledge may support or interfere with acquiring language-specific representations for a new phonemic categorization system. Syllable structure is a part of this phonological knowledge, and language-specific syllabification preferences influence language acquisition, including early word segmentation. As a result, we expect to see language-specific syllable structure influencing speech perception as well. Initial evidence of an effect appears in Ali et al. (2011), who argued that cross-linguistic differences in McGurk fusion within a syllable reflected listeners’ language-specific syllabification preferences. Building on a framework from Cho and McQueen (2006), we argue that this could reflect the Phonological-Superiority Hypothesis (differences in L1 syllabification preferences make some syllabic positions harder to classify than others) or the Phonetic-Superiority Hypothesis (the acoustic qualities of speech sounds in some positions make it difficult to perceive unfamiliar sounds). However, their design does not distinguish between these two hypotheses. The current research study extends the work of Ali et al. (2011) by testing Japanese, and adding audio-only and congruent audio-visual stimuli to test the effects of syllabification preferences beyond just McGurk fusion. Eighteen native English speakers and 18 native Japanese speakers were asked to transcribe nonsense words in an artificial language. English allows stop consonants in syllable codas while Japanese heavily restricts them, but both groups showed similar patterns of McGurk fusion in stop codas. This is inconsistent with the Phonological-Superiority Hypothesis. However, when visual information was added, the phonetic influences on transcription accuracy largely disappeared. This is inconsistent with the Phonetic-Superiority Hypothesis. We argue from these results that neither acoustic informativity nor interference of a listener’s phonological knowledge is superior, and sketch a cognitively inspired rational cue integration framework as a third hypothesis to explain how L1 phonological knowledge affects L2 perception.

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