Helsingin yliopisto


Helsingin yliopiston verkkojulkaisut

University of Helsinki, Helsinki 2006

Cortical representations for phonological quantity

Sari Ylinen

Doctoral dissertation, June 2006.
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, Department of Psychology, Cognitive Brain Research Unit and University of Jyväskylä, Department of Languages.

Different languages use temporal speech cues in different linguistic functions. In Finnish, speech-sound duration is used as the primary cue for the phonological quantity distinction ― i.e., a distinction between short and long phonemes. For the second-language (L2) learners of Finnish, quantity is often difficult to master if speech-sound duration plays a less important role in the phonology of their native language (L1). The present studies aimed to investigate the cortical representations for phonological quantity in native speakers and L2 users of Finnish by using behavioral and electrophysiological methods. Since long-term memory representations for different speech units have been previously shown to participate in the elicitation of the mismatch negativity (MMN) brain response, MMN was used to compare the neural representation for quantity between native speakers and L2 users of Finnish.

The results of the studies suggested that native Finnish speakers' MMN response to quantity was determined by the activation of native-language phonetic prototypes rather than by phoneme boundaries. In addition, native speakers seemed to process phoneme quantity and quality independently from each other by separate brain representations. The cross-linguistic MMN studies revealed that, in native speakers of Finnish, the MMN response to duration or quantity-degree changes was enhanced in amplitude selectively in speech sounds, whereas this pattern was not observed in L2 users. Native speakers' MMN enhancement is suggested to be due to the pre-attentive activation of L1 prototypes for quantity. In L2 users, the activation of L2 prototypes or other L2 learning effects were not reflected in the MMN, with one exception. Even though L2 users failed to show native-like brain responses to duration changes in a vowel that was similar in L1 and L2, their duration MMN response was native-like for an L2 vowel with no counterpart in L1. Thus, the pre-attentive activation of L2 users' representations was determined by the degree of similarity of L2 sounds to L1 sounds. In addition, behavioral experiments suggested that the establishment of representations for L2 quantity may require several years of language exposure.

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Last updated 22.05.2006

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