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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00162

One way or another: Adult listeners learn difficult non-native tone contrasts pre-attentively

  • 1School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University, Australia
  • 2The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University, Australia
  • 3Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, Australian Research Council (ARC), Australia
  • 4Division of Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, School of Humanities, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Research investigating listeners’ neural sensitivity to speech sounds has largely focused on segmental features. We examined Australian English listeners’ perception and learning of a supra-segmental feature, pitch direction in a non-native tonal contrast, using a passive oddball paradigm and electroencephalography. The stimuli were two contours generated from naturally produced high-level and high-falling tones in Mandarin Chinese, differing only in pitch direction (Liu & Kager, 2014). While both contours had similar pitch onsets, the pitch offset of the falling contour was lower than that of the level one. The contrast was presented in two orientations (standard and deviant reversed) and tested in two blocks with the order of block presentation counterbalanced. Mismatch negativity (MMN) responses showed that listeners discriminated the non-native tonal contrast only in the second block, reflecting indications of learning through exposure during the first block. In addition, listeners showed a later MMN peak for their second block of test relative to listeners who did the same block first, suggesting linguistic processing or a misapplication of perceptual strategies from the first to the second block. The results also showed a perceptual asymmetry for change in pitch direction: listeners who encountered a falling tone deviant in the first block had larger frontal MMN amplitudes than listeners who encountered a level tone deviant in the first block. The implications of our findings for second language speech and the developmental trajectory for tone perception are discussed.

Keywords: Electroencephalography, mismatch negativity, Speech Processing, tone, pitch direction, Learning, perceptual asymmetry

Received: 06 Sep 2017; Accepted: 31 Jan 2018.

Edited by:

Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University, United Kingdom

Reviewed by:

Chiara Gambi, Cardiff University, United Kingdom
Mariapaola D'Imperio, Aix-Marseille Université, France  

Copyright: © 2018 Liu, Ong, Tuninetti and Escudero. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Liquan Liu, Western Sydney University, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Penrith, Australia,