Perception of nonnative consonant contrasts may be influenced by phonetic, as well as phonological, properties of the listener’s native language. The impact of both factors on perception of American English /r l w j/ was investigated with native speakers of Danish and German, which have /r l j/ but lack /w/, thus employing /r/-/l/ but lacking /w/-/j/ and /w/-/r/ as phonological contrasts. However, while the three languages realize /j/ identically, Danish/German “light” alveolar [l] differ modestly from English “velarized” [ɫ], Danish pharyngeal and labiodental approximant realizations of /r, v/ are more similar to English /r, w/ than are German uvular and labiodental fricative realizations, and Danish is richer in approximants than English or German. Phonetic similarities perceptually outweighed phonological correspondences: Danish listeners’ identification of all English contrasts was highly categorical, discrimination of /w/-/r/ and /r/-/l/ approached that of English speakers, and discrimination of /w/-/j/ was remarkably higher than English speakers, all largely irrespective of spoken English experience. German listeners’ identification of all contrasts was also highly categorical, but discrimination was poorer than English and Danish listeners for /w/-/r/ and /r/-/l/, and intermediate for /w/-/j/. Thus, cross-language phonetic relationships among “the same” (or neighboring) phonemes strongly influence perception. These findings, together with systemic consideration of English, Danish and German vowel and approximant subsystems, provide novel insights into phonologically categorical versus finer-grained phonetic contributions to non-native speech perception.
Journal of Phonetics, 2012, Vol 40, Issue 1, p. 109-128