Universality and language-specific experience in the perception of lexical tone and pitch

Denis Burnham, Benjawan Kasisopa, Amanda Reid, Sudaporn Luksaneeyanawin, Francisco Lacerda, Virginia Attina, Nan Xu Rattanasone, Iris-Corinna Schwarz, Diane Webster

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Two experiments focus on Thai tone perception by native speakers of tone languages (Thai, Cantonese, and Mandarin), a pitch-accent (Swedish), and a nontonal (English) language. In Experiment 1, there was better auditory-only and auditory-visual discrimination by tone and pitch-accent language speakers than by nontone language speakers. Conversely and counterintuitively, there was better visual-only discrimination by nontone language speakers than tone and pitch-accent language speakers. Nevertheless, visual augmentation of auditory tone perception in noise was evident for all five language groups. In Experiment 2, involving discrimination in three fundamental frequency equivalent auditory contexts, tone and pitch-accent language participants showed equivalent discrimination for normal Thai speech, filtered speech, and violin sounds. In contrast, nontone language listeners had significantly better discrimination for violin sounds than filtered speech and in turn speech. Together the results show that tone perception is determined by both auditory and visual information, by acoustic and linguistic contexts, and by universal and experiential factors.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1459-1491
Number of pages33
JournalApplied Psycholinguistics
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015


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Burnham, D., Kasisopa, B., Reid, A., Luksaneeyanawin, S., Lacerda, F., Attina, V., ... Webster, D. (2015). Universality and language-specific experience in the perception of lexical tone and pitch. Applied Psycholinguistics, 36(6), 1459-1491. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0142716414000496