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Phonetic learning (Heffner & Myers, 2021)

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journal contribution
posted on 15.09.2021, 22:41 by Christopher C. Heffner, Emily B. Myers
Purpose: Individuals vary in their ability to learn the sound categories of nonnative languages (nonnative phonetic learning) and to adapt to systematic differences, such as accent or talker differences, in the sounds of their native language (native phonetic learning). Difficulties with both native and nonnative learning are well attested in people with speech and language disorders relative to healthy controls, but substantial variability in these skills is also present in the typical population. This study examines whether this individual variability can be organized around a common ability that we label “phonetic plasticity.”
Method: A group of healthy young adult participants (N = 80), who attested they had no history of speech, language, neurological, or hearing deficits, completed two tasks of nonnative phonetic category learning, two tasks of learning to cope with variation in their native language, and seven tasks of other cognitive functions, distributed across two sessions. Performance on these 11 tasks was compared, and exploratory factor analysis was used to assess the extent to which performance on each task was related to the others.
Results: Performance on both tasks of native learning and an explicit task of nonnative learning patterned together, suggesting that native and nonnative phonetic learning tasks rely on a shared underlying capacity, which is termed “phonetic plasticity.” Phonetic plasticity was also associated with vocabulary, comprehension of words in background noise, and, more weakly, working memory.
Conclusions: Nonnative sound learning and native language speech perception may rely on shared phonetic plasticity. The results suggest that good learners of native language phonetic variation are also good learners of nonnative phonetic contrasts.

Supplemental Material S1. Power analysis.

Heffner, C. C., & Myers, E. B. (2021). Individual differences in phonetic plasticity across native and nonnative contexts. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_JSLHR-21-00004


Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation (Grant SMA 1714858 awarded to C. C. Heffner). C. C. Heffner was also supported by a Hunt Fellowship awarded by the Acoustical Society of America.