Perceiving unstressed vowels in foreign-accented English

Braun, B., Lemhofer, K., & Mani, N. (2011). Perceiving unstressed vowels in foreign-accented English. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129, 376-387. doi:10.1121/1.3500688.
This paper investigated how foreign-accented stress cues affect on-line speech comprehension in British speakers of English. While unstressed English vowels are usually reduced to /@/, Dutch speakers of English only slightly centralize them. Speakers of both languages differentiate stress by suprasegmentals (duration and intensity). In a cross-modal priming experiment, English listeners heard sentences ending in monosyllabic prime fragments—produced by either an English or a Dutch speaker of English—and performed lexical decisions on visual targets. Primes were either stress-matching (“ab” excised from absurd), stress-mismatching (“ab” from absence), or unrelated (“pro” from profound) with respect to the target (e.g., ABSURD). Results showed a priming effect for stress-matching primes only when produced by the English speaker, suggesting that vowel quality is a more important cue to word stress than suprasegmental information. Furthermore, for visual targets with word-initial secondary stress that do not require vowel reduction (e.g., CAMPAIGN), resembling the Dutch way of realizing stress, there was a priming effect for both speakers. Hence, our data suggest that Dutch-accented English is not harder to understand in general, but it is in instances where the language-specific implementation of lexical stress differs across languages.
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