Investigating the role of attention in phonetic learning

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Flege’s Speech Learning Model posits that adult second language learners retain the abilities of child learners for the perception and formation of novel phonetic categories. For novel categories to be formed, learners must discern at least some of the phonetic differences between the novel L2 and the closest L1 sound. However the model does not fully specify the mechanisms by which learners may come to discern relevant phonetic differences. This paper presents two studies investigating learners’ abilities to attend to novel perceptual dimensions and the effect of attention on discerning phonetic differences. In one study, English, Mandarin, Japanese, and advanced late-learners of Mandarin gave similarity judgments of synthesized tones. Mandarin listeners judged on the basis of both average F0 and F0 slope. English and Japanese listeners did not use slope, whereas advanced Mandarin learners did. This suggests that late-learners can learn to attend to novel perceptual dimensions. In the other study, English monolinguals were grouped into those instructed to attend to Hindi phonetic contrasts and those instructed to attend to sound-meaning correspondences of the same stimuli. For the novel [???-??] contrast, the sound-attending group showed better discrimination post-training. This suggests that with explicit directing of attention, adult learners can better discern novel phonetic contrasts.


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