Establishing new mappings between familiar phones: Neural and behavioral evidence for early automatic processing of nonnative contrasts

Shannon Barrios, Anna Namyst, Ellen Lau, Naomi Feldman, William Idsardi

To attain native-like competence, second language (L2) learners must establish mappings between familiar speech sounds and new phoneme categories. For example, Spanish learners of English must learn that [d] and [ð], which are allophones of the same phoneme in Spanish, can distinguish meaning in English (i.e., /deɪ/ "day" and /ðeɪ/ "they"). Because adult listeners are less sensitive to allophonic than phonemic contrasts in their native language (L1), novel target language contrasts between L1 allophones may pose special difficulty for L2 learners. We investigate whether advanced Spanish late-learners of English overcome native language mappings to establish new phonological relations between familiar phones. We report behavioral and magnetoencepholographic (MEG) evidence from two experiments that measured the sensitivity and pre-attentive processing of three listener groups (L1 English, L1 Spanish, and advanced Spanish late-learners of English) to differences between three nonword stimulus pairs ([idi]-[iði], [idi]-[iɾi], and [iði]-[iɾi]) which differ in phones that play a different functional role in Spanish and English. Spanish and English listeners demonstrated greater sensitivity (larger d' scores) for nonword pairs distinguished by phonemic than by allophonic contrasts, mirroring previous findings. Spanish late-learners demonstrated sensitivity (large d' scores and MMN responses) to all three contrasts, suggesting that these L2 learners may have established a novel [d]-[ð] contrast despite the phonological relatedness of these sounds in the L1. Our results suggest that phonological relatedness influences perceived similarity, as evidenced by the results of the native speaker groups, but may not cause persistent difficulty for advanced L2 learners. Instead, L2 learners are able to use cues that are present in their input to establish new mappings between familiar phones.