The effects of high versus low talker variability and individual aptitude on phonetic training of Mandarin lexical tones

PeerJ. 2019 Aug 9:7:e7191. doi: 10.7717/peerj.7191. eCollection 2019.


High variability (HV) training has been found to be more effective than low variability (LV) training when learning various non-native phonetic contrasts. However, little research has considered whether this applies to the learning of tone contrasts. The only two relevant studies suggested that the effect of HV training depends on the perceptual aptitude of participants (Perrachione et al., 2011; Sadakata & McQueen, 2014). The present study extends these findings by examining the interaction between individual aptitude and input variability using natural, meaningful second language input (both previous studies used pseudowords). A total of 60 English speakers took part in an eight session phonetic training paradigm. They were assigned to high/low/high-blocked variability training groups and learned real Mandarin tones and words. Individual aptitude was measured following previous work. Learning was measured using one discrimination task, one identification task and two production tasks. All tasks assessed generalization. All groups improved in both the production and perception of tones which transferred to untrained voices and items, demonstrating the effectiveness of training despite the increased complexity compared with previous research. Although the LV group exhibited an advantage with the training stimuli, there was no evidence for a benefit of high-variability in any of the tests of generalisation. Moreover, although aptitude significantly predicted performance in discrimination, identification and training tasks, no interaction between individual aptitude and variability was revealed. Additional Bayes Factor analyses indicated substantial evidence for the null for the hypotheses of a benefit of high-variability in generalisation, however the evidence regarding the interaction was ambiguous. We discuss these results in light of previous findings.

Keywords: L2 phonetic contrasts; Lexical tone learning; Phonetic training; Second language.

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the British Academy Small Grant, a grant awarded to Elizabeth Wonnacott and Meghan Clayards (SG111965) and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant (SSHRC #435-2016-0747) to Meghan Clayards and Elizabeth Wonnacott. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.