Hierarchical contributions of linguistic knowledge to talker identification: Phonological versus lexical familiarity

Research paper by Deirdre E. McLaughlin, Yaminah D. Carter, Cecilia C. Cheng, Tyler K. Perrachione

Indexed on: 07 Mar '20Published on: 19 Jun '19Published in: Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics


Listeners identify talkers more accurately when listening to their native language compared to an unfamiliar, foreign language. This language-familiarity effect in talker identification has been shown to arise from familiarity with both the sound patterns (phonetics and phonology) and the linguistic content (words) of one's native language. However, it has been unknown whether these two sources of information contribute independently to talker identification abilities, particularly whether hearing familiar words can facilitate talker identification in the absence of familiar phonetics. To isolate the contribution of lexical familiarity, we conducted three experiments that tested listeners’ ability to identify talkers saying familiar words, but with unfamiliar phonetics. In two experiments, listeners identified talkers from recordings of their native language (English), an unfamiliar foreign language (Mandarin Chinese), or “hybrid” speech stimuli (sentences spoken in Mandarin, but which can be convincingly coerced to sound like English when presented with subtitles that prime plausible English-language lexical interpretations based on the Mandarin phonetics). In a third experiment, we explored natural variation in lexical-phonetic congruence as listeners identified talkers with varying degrees of a Mandarin accent. Priming listeners to hear English speech did not improve their ability to identify talkers speaking Mandarin, even after additional training, and talker identification accuracy decreased as talkers’ phonetics became increasingly dissimilar to American English. Together, these experiments indicate that unfamiliar sound patterns preclude talker identification benefits otherwise afforded by familiar words. These results suggest that linguistic representations contribute hierarchically to talker identification; the facilitatory effect of familiar words requires the availability of familiar phonological forms.