'Phonetic' Or 'Fanatic'?
Cues to a difficult non-native phoneme contrast
Non-native phoneme contrasts are hard to perceive for second-language learners. A case in point is the English /æ/-/e/contrast, which is notoriously difficult for Dutch listeners. Previous research has shown, however, that Dutch listeners are not oblivious to this contrast. This may either be caused by word-specific learning or by incomplete phonological learning which may falter if the vowels are slightly hypo-articulated. In this study it was investigated whether Dutch listeners' performance may be related to the acoustic, phonological, and lexical characteristics of minimal pairs distinguished by the vowels /æ/ and /ε/ in a 2AFC perceptual discrimination task. Acoustic differences, lexical frequency, and number of syllables per word all affected listeners' sensitivity to the contrast. However, regression analyses showed that lexical frequency had no effect once number of syllables was accounted for. This may indicate that listeners indeed learn a new phonological contrast, rather than a contrast between unanalysed whole words.
Published online: 24 March 2014