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Informativeness, familiarity and the modulation of perceptual biases

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Transfer of language structures from the native language (L1) to a second language (L2) is a concept central to the study of L2 acquisition, yet there is no general consensus on the level at which such transfer occurs. This study explored the hypothesis that in L2 perception, transfer occurs at the level of processing biases shaped by the relative informativeness (RI) of acoustic cues in the L1. To examine the role of RI, perception of unreleased final voiceless stops was tested in L1 English listeners and four groups of late-onset L2 English learners whose L1s differ in the RI of a crucial cue to unreleased stops (vowel-to-consonant formant transitions). Speeded discrimination and identification tasks were used to investigate perception in English (a familiar L2) and Korean (an unfamiliar L2). Between-group differences in performance were generally consistent with the hypothesis, with L1 Japanese listeners showing the poorest perception, followed by L1 Mandarin, Russian, English, and Korean listeners. The two exceptions occurred with Russian listeners, who underperformed Mandarin listeners in identification of English stops and outperformed English listeners in identification of Korean stops. Overall, these findings support the view that RI in the L1 influences the uptake of acoustic information, resulting in processing biases that constitute a major source of transfer in L2 perception. However, these biases interact with prior L2 knowledge, which may result in significantly different perceptual consequences for a familiar and an unfamiliar L2.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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