Indiana University

The Speech Research Laboratory is a part of the Psychological and Brain Sciences department at Indiana University in Bloomington.
1101 E. 10th Street
Bloomington, IN 47405

17th Feb 2014

Speech Research Lab Meeting – 2-21-14 – Elena Safronova

For this week’s SRL meeting we welcome Elena Safronova from the University of Barcelona. Elena is a visiting doctoral student in Isabelle Darcy’s lab, she is completing her PhD under the mentorship of  Joan Carles Mora on attention control and acoustic/phonological memory and their role in L2 phonology. Please join us in welcoming Elena, the title and abstract of her talk are below, all are invited and welcome to attend this talk.

Psychology Room 128, Friday 2/21/14, 1:30pm

Don’t be so categorical!

Role of Cognitive Skills in L2 Vowel Perception

Elena Safronova

Universitat de Barcelona

It seems that we begin life being able to perceive very fine acoustic-phonetic distinctions existing in the world’s languages (Kuhl & Rivera-Gaxiola, 2008). Then this fascinating perceptual sensitivity undergoes a rapid reorganization due to the development of cognitive skills and establishment of the first language (L1) categories, which eventually makes as become a committed to L1 speech perceiver (Conboy et al., 2008; Kuhl et al., 1992; Werker and Tees, 1984). When it comes to learning a second/foreign language (L2) later in life the attunement to the acoustic-phonetic properties of L1 sounds may hinder formation of accurate representations of L2 speech sounds, leading to the presence of foreign accent in speech production. Despite the fact that the ability to establish new phonological categories for a L2 is thought to remain intact across the life span, it is closely related to the individuals’ ability to detect acoustic-phonetic differences between L1 and L2 sounds (Flege, 1995), which in its turn may be a source of a widely observed inter-subject variation among late L2 learners. These findings call for research on cognitive mechanisms that may contribute to the  L2 speech discrimination ability.

The study I will present explores the role of acoustic memory, phonological memory and attention control in EFL learners’ discrimination of tense-lax /i:/-/?/.  The participants of the study were Spanish/Catalan (N=50, mean age = 19.96) EFL learners with average age of onset of English learning of 6.7 years old. The results were consistent with previous research, demonstrating Spanish/Catalan EFL learners’ over-reliance on duration when perceiving the target  vowel contrast (Cebrian, 2006;  Cerviño-Povedano & Mora, 2011). The participants’ acoustic memory and attention control scores significantly correlated with percentage of correctly discriminated natural and duration-neutralized stimuli, indicating that participants’ storage capacity for the acoustic information of the speech input as well as the ability to foreground/background relevant/irrelevant details were related to their vowel discrimination. Participants’ phonological memory capacity did not have any significant effect on vowel discrimination ability. The results of the study have shown that individuals with higher memory capacity for the acoustic details in speech input and higher attentional control over relevant/irrelevant acoustic information are significantly better at discriminating English tense-lax /i:/-/?/ vowels under both natural and duration-neutralized conditions than the lower ability group. Regression analyses indicated that acoustic memory and attention control accounted for 10.3% and 17.4% respectively, of the unique variance in English vowel discrimination accuracy, thus highlighting the important role of cognitive mechanisms in the re-weighting of phonetic cues and more target-like L2 speech perception.


1 Cebrian, J. (2006). Experience and the use of duration in the categorization of L2 vowels. Journal of Phonetics 34. 372-387.

2 Cerviño-Povedano, E. and Mora, J. C. (2011). Investigating Catalan learners of English over-reliance on duration: vowel cue weighting and phonological short-term memory. Dziubalska-Ko?aczyk, K., Wrembel, M. and Kul, M. (eds) Achievements and perspectives in SLA of speech: New Sounds 2010. VolumeI. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. 56-64.

3 Conboy, B. T., Sommerville, J. A., Kuhl, P. K. (2008). Cognitive control factors in speech perception at 11 months. Developmental Psychology 44(5), 1505-1512.

4 Flege, J.E. (1995). Second language speech learning: theory, findings, and problems. In W. Strange (Ed) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience: Issues in Cross-linguistic Research. Timonium, MD: York Press, pp. 229-273.

5 Kuhl P. K, Williams K. A., Lacerda F., Stevens K. N., Lindblom B. (1992). Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Science. 255:606–8.

6 Werker, J., and Tees, R. (1984). Cross-language speech perception: Evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life Infant Behaviour and Development, 7, 49-63.

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