Competition dynamics in second language listening

Cutler, A., & Broersma, M. (2010). Competition dynamics in second language listening. Talk presented at Psycholinguistic approaches to speech recognition in adverse conditions. University of Bristol, UK. 2010-03-09.
Listening, in any language, involves processing the phone¬mic content of spoken input in order to identify the words of which utterances are made up. Models of spoken-word recognition agree that deriving the correct word sequence from speech input is a process in which multiple candidate words are considered in parallel, and in which words com¬pete with one another where they separately lay claim on the same input. In ideal speech situations, the phonemic sequence of each spoken word would be fully instantiated in the speech signal, listeners would correctly identify every one of these uttered phonemes, and listeners stored lexical representations would exactly match with the form in which the words are encoun¬tered in speech. In the real world, with which this workshop is concerned, none of these propositions is guaranteed to hold. This presentation addresses the particular case of lis¬tening in a second language (L2), and the potential effects on the word recognition process of misidentifying a pho¬neme in the input. The misidentification of L2 phonemes is a notorious source of listening difficulty. Contrary to many L2 users’ intuitions, however, the most serious problem is not lexical indistinguishability (‘write’ heard as ‘light’, etc.). There are two reasons for this: Spurious homophones such as ‘light/write’ would contribute only a trivial increase to the signif¬icant number of real homophones in the lexicon, and the number of fully indistinguishable words is massively out¬weighed by the set of temporarily indistinguishable words, which nevertheless add to the amount of lexical competition that a L2 listener experiences. The relevant lexical statistics will be presented in support of this claim. Exacerbating the increase in lexical competition in L2 is the curious situation whereby an L2 user’s lexical represen¬tations can encode phonemic distinctions which are not reli¬ably perceived by the same person in spoken input. This com¬bination of lexical accuracy with perceptual inaccuracy, now repeatedly established in listening experiments, is fatal in the competition situation. As will be illustrated in simulations with a computationally implemented spoken-word recog¬nition model, the combination inevitably results in compe¬tition which is more persistent than the competition from accurately perceived words. Word recognition experiments with L2 listeners confirm that this extra-persistent compe¬tition is indeed observed. The real world of the second-lan¬guage listener is more competition-prone than the world of the native-language listener, ideal or real.
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