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Individual aptitude in Mandarin lexical tone perception predicts effectiveness of high-variability training

Sadakata, M., & McQueen, J. M. (2014). Individual aptitude in Mandarin lexical tone perception predicts effectiveness of high-variability training. Frontiers in Psychology, 5: 1318. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01318.
Although the high-variability training method can enhance learning of non-native speech categories, this can depend on individuals’ aptitude. The current study asked how general the effects of perceptual aptitude are by testing whether they occur with training materials spoken by native speakers and whether they depend on the nature of the to-be-learned material. Forty-five native Dutch listeners took part in a five-day training procedure in which they identified bisyllabic Mandarin pseudowords (e.g., asa) pronounced with different lexical tone combinations. The training materials were presented to different groups of listeners at three levels of variability: low (many repetitions of a limited set of words recorded by a single speaker), medium (fewer repetitions of a more variable set of words recorded by 3 speakers) and high (similar to medium but with 5 speakers). Overall, variability did not influence learning performance, but this was due to an interaction with individuals’ perceptual aptitude: increasing variability hindered improvements in performance for low-aptitude perceivers while it helped improvements in performance for high-aptitude perceivers. These results show that the previously observed interaction between individuals’ aptitude and effects of degree of variability extends to natural tokens of Mandarin speech. This interaction was not found, however, in a closely-matched study in which native Dutch listeners were trained on the Japanese geminate/singleton consonant contrast. This may indicate that the effectiveness of high-variability training depends not only on individuals’ aptitude in speech perception but also on the nature of the categories being acquired.
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