Effects of language and music experience on speech perception

T. Christina Zhao — zhaotc@uw.edu
Patricia K. Kuhl — pkkuhl@uw.edu
Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences
University of Washington, BOX 357988
Seattle, WA, 98195

Popular version of paper 4aSC2, “Top-down linguistic categories dominate over bottom-up acoustics in lexical tone processing”
Presented Thursday morning, May 21st, 2015, 8:00 AM, Ballroom 2
169th ASA Meeting, Pittsburgh

Speech perception involves constant interplay between top-down and bottom-up processing. For example, to process phonemes (e.g. ‘b’ from ‘p’), the listener must accurately process the acoustical information in the speech signals (i.e. bottom-up strategy) and assign these sounds efficiently to a category (i.e. top-down strategy). Listeners’ performance in speech perception tasks is influenced by their experience in either processing strategy. Here, we use lexical tone processing as a window to examine how extensive experience in both strategies influence speech perception.

Lexical tones are contrastive pitch contour patterns at the word level. That is, a small difference in the pitch contour can result in different word meaning. Native speakers of a tonal language thus have extensive experience in using the top-down strategy to assign highly variable pitch contours into lexical tone categories. This top-down influence is reflected by the reduced sensitivity to acoustic differences within a phonemic category compared to across categories (Halle, Chang, & Best, 2004). On the other hand, individuals with extensive music training early in life exhibit enhanced sensitivities to pitch differences not only in music, but also in speech, reflecting stronger bottom-up influence. Such bottom-up influence is reflected by the enhanced sensitivity in detecting differences between lexical tones when the listeners are non-tonal language speakers (Wong, Skoe, Russo, Dees, & Kraus, 2007).
How does extensive experience in both strategies influence lexical tone processing? To address this question, native Mandarin speakers with extensive music training (N=17) completed a music pitch discrimination task and a lexical tone discrimination task. We compared their performance with individuals with extensive experience in only one of the processing strategies (i.e. Mandarin nonmusicians (N=20) and English musicians (N=20), data from Zhao & Kuhl (2015)).

Despite the enhanced performance in the music pitch discrimination task in Mandarin musicians, their performance in the lexical tone discrimination ask is similar to the performance of the Mandarin nonmusicians, and different from the English musicians’ performance
(Fig. 1, ‘Sensitivity across lexical tone continuum by group’). That is, they exhibited reduced sensitivities within phonemic categories (i.e. on either end of the line) compared to within categories (i.e. the middle of the line), and their overall performance is lower than the English musicians. This result strongly suggests a dominant effect of the top-down influence in processing lexical tone. Yet, further analyses revealed that Mandarin musicians and Mandarin nonmusicians may still be relying on different underlying mechanisms for performing in the lexical tone discrimination task. In the Mandarin musician, their music pitch discrimination scores are correlated with their lexical tone discrimination scores, suggesting a contribution of the bottom-up strategy in their lexical tone discrimination performance (Fig. 2, ‘Music pitch and lexical tone discrimination’, purple). This relation is similar to the English musicians (Fig. 2, peach) but very different from the Mandarin non-musicians

(Fig. 2, yellow). Specifically, for Mandarin nonmusicians, the music pitch discrimination scores do not correlate with the lexical tone discrimination scores, suggesting independent processes.

Tags: linguistics, speech, music, speech perception

Halle, P. A., Chang, Y. C., & Best, C. T. (2004). Identification and discrimination of Mandarin Chinese tones by Mandarin Chinese vs. French listeners. Journal of Phonetics, 32(3), 395-421. doi: 10.1016/s0095-4470(03)00016-0
Wong, P. C. M., Skoe, E., Russo, N. M., Dees, T., & Kraus, N. (2007). Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nat. Neurosci., 10(4), 420-422. doi: 10.1038/nn1872
Zhao, T. C., & Kuhl, P. K. (2015). Effect of musical experience on learning lexical tone categories. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 137(3), 1452-1463. doi: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1121/1.4913457

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