REU Supplement for Doctoral Dissertation Research: Why adapt? Phonotactic learning as non-native language adaptation

Project: Research project

Project Details


Phonotactics, or the constraints on sequencing of speech sounds, forms an important part
of what we know about a particular language. For example, a fluent English speaker knows that
can end with ng (king) but do not begin with that sound (ngik is not likely to be a word of
English); in contrast, a native speakers of Nenets knows that words can start but not end with ng.
When learning a second language, we therefore have to learn that different talkers have different
phonotactic constraints so that we can rapidly and efficiently process speech by speakers of our
native language as well as speakers of non-native languages (Weber & Cutler, 2006). Over the
past two decades, laboratory paradigms have been developed that allow us to examine the initial
phases of such adaptation. Previous research shows that in the lab speakers rapidly adapt to novel
phonotactics (e.g. Warker and Dell, 2006). But this provides an incomplete model of learning, as
learning that different talkers have different constraints (e.g. “Matt doesn’t end his syllables in
fricatives; Tommy doesn’t end his syllables in stops”) is difficult or impossible (Onishi,
Chambers, and Fisher, 2002). We propose that this puzzling result reflects speakers’ past
experience with phonotactic variation. As learners, we know that speakers of different languages
produce different phonotactics, while two speakers of the same language produce similar
phonotactics. As such, speakers should only adapt to talker-specific constraints when those
talkers have different language backgrounds. We explore this hypothesis in 3 experiments: in
study 1, listeners are exposed to two talkers, each with a different phonotactic constraint.
Preliminary results suggest that these talker-specific constraints are learnable when talkers differ
in language background, but not when they share a language background. Study 2 explores the
role of interlocutor language background on adaptation to phonotactics in speech production.
Study 3 will then investigate the structure and granularity of listeners’ prior knowledge. Can
listeners hold models of only a native vs. non-native language, or can they maintain models for
two separate non-native languages?
Effective start/end date8/1/177/31/19


  • National Science Foundation (BCS-1728173)


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