Perceptual assimilation of lexical tone: the roles of language experience and visual information

Amanda Reid, Denis Burnham, Benjawan Kasisopa, Ronan Reilly, Virginie Attina, Nan Xu Rattanasone, Catherine T Best
Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 2015, 77 (2): 571-91
Using Best's (1995) perceptual assimilation model (PAM), we investigated auditory-visual (AV), auditory-only (AO), and visual-only (VO) perception of Thai tones. Mandarin and Cantonese (tone-language) speakers were asked to categorize Thai tones according to their own native tone categories, and Australian English (non-tone-language) speakers to categorize Thai tones into their native intonation categories-for instance, question or statement. As comparisons, Thai participants completed a straightforward identification task, and another Australian English group identified the Thai tones using simple symbols. All of the groups also completed an AX discrimination task. Both the Mandarin and Cantonese groups categorized AO and AV Thai falling tones as their native level tones, and Thai rising tones as their native rising tones, although the Mandarin participants found it easier to categorize Thai level tones than did the Cantonese participants. VO information led to very poor categorization for all groups, and AO and AV information also led to very poor categorizations for the English intonation categorization group. PAM's predictions regarding tone discriminability based on these category assimilation patterns were borne out for the Mandarin group's AO and AV discriminations, providing support for the applicability of the PAM to lexical tones. For the Cantonese group, however, PAM was unable to account for one specific discrimination pattern-namely, their relatively good performance on the Thai high-rising contrast in the auditory conditions-and no predictions could be derived for the English groups. A full account of tone assimilation will likely need to incorporate considerations of phonetic, and even acoustic, similarity and overlap between nonnative and native tone categories.

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