Shared orthography: Do shared written symbols influence the perception of native-nonnative sound contrasts?




Pytlyk, Carolyn A.

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The research presented in this thesis investigated whether second language learners who learn via a familiar orthography (i.e. Pinyin) differed from second language learners who learned via a non-familiar orthography (i.e. Zhuyin) in their perception of English-Mandarin sound contrasts. The assumption was that significant differences in perceptual performances between experimental groups could be attributed to the orthography’s influence in the categorization of Mandarin sounds. Also investigated in this research was the degree of confusability of particular Mandarin sounds based on their relative similarities to their English counterparts. The data were obtained from thirty-two native Canadian English speaking participants through a series of experimental tasks – pre-test > training phase > post-test. The pre- and post-tests assessed the participants’ sensitivities to English-Mandarin contrasts in an oddity discrimination task. Between the two tests, the participants underwent a short training phase where they learnt Mandarin via the orthographic medium assigned to their group. Perceptual performance of the participants was measured in terms of error rates (ER), a-prime (A’) and response times (RT). The hypotheses concerning orthographic influence were not supported by the results. Three-way repeated measures ANOVAs revealed that there were no significant differences in the perceptual performances of the three groups for any of the three measures of the dependent variable. The lack of significant differences is discussed in terms of: 1) the strength of the established L1 orthographic system, 2) the cognitive load placed on the participants, and 3) the insufficient time given for the development of new symbol-sound associations within the new L2 orthographic system. The hypotheses concerning the degree of confusability were confirmed. The statistical analyses revealed three groups of perceptual sensitivity; 1) a highly sensitive group, 2) a slightly sensitive group, and 3) an insensitive group. These results are discussed in terms of acoustic saliency and models of speech processing. This is the first systematic study to investigate the potential influence of the L1 orthographic code on second language speech perception. Two major conclusions were drawn from the results. First, Mandarin instruction via Pinyin appears to have slight advantage over instruction via Zhuyin as the conflict between the two orthographic systems appears to neutralize any potential benefits. Second, participants exhibit varying degrees of perceptual sensitivity to L1-L2 sound contrasts due to the type of differences between the native and nonnative sounds.



orthography, second language acquisition, speech perception