Bilingual phonology in dichotic perception: A case study of Malayalam and English voicing

Mandal, S., Best, C. T., Shaw, J., & Cutler, A. (2020). Bilingual phonology in dichotic perception: A case study of Malayalam and English voicing. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 5(1): 73. doi:10.5334/gjgl.853.
Listeners often experience cocktail-party situations, encountering multiple ongoing conversa-
tions while tracking just one. Capturing the words spoken under such conditions requires selec-
tive attention and processing, which involves using phonetic details to discern phonological
structure. How do bilinguals accomplish this in L1-L2 competition? We addressed that question
using a dichotic listening task with fluent Malayalam-English bilinguals, in which they were pre-
sented with synchronized nonce words, one in each language in separate ears, with competing
onsets of a labial stop (Malayalam) and a labial fricative (English), both voiced or both voiceless.
They were required to attend to the Malayalam or the English item, in separate blocks, and report
the initial consonant they heard. We found that perceptual intrusions from the unattended to the
attended language were influenced by voicing, with more intrusions on voiced than voiceless tri-
als. This result supports our proposal for the feature specification of consonants in Malayalam-
English bilinguals, which makes use of privative features, underspecification and the “standard
approach” to laryngeal features, as against “laryngeal realism”. Given this representational
account, we observe that intrusions result from phonetic properties in the unattended signal
being assimilated to the closest matching phonological category in the attended language, and
are more likely for segments with a greater number of phonological feature specifications.
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