Models of spoken-word recognition differ on whether compensation for assimilation is language-specific or depends on general auditory processing. English and French participants were taught words that began or ended with the sibilants /s/ and /∫/. Both languages exhibit some assimilation in sibilant sequences (e.g., /s/ becomes like [∫] in dress shop and classe chargée), but they differ in the strength and predominance of anticipatory versus carryover assimilation. After training, participants were presented with novel words embedded in sentences, some of which contained an assimilatory context either preceding or following. A continuum of target sounds ranging from [s] to [∫] was spliced into the novel words, representing a range of possible assimilation strengths. Listeners' perceptions were examined using a visual-world eyetracking paradigm in which the listener clicked on pictures matching the novel words. We found two distinct language-general context effects: a contrastive effect when the assimilating context preceded the target, and flattening of the sibilant categorization function (increased ambiguity) when the assimilating context followed. Furthermore, we found that English but not French listeners were able to resolve the ambiguity created by the following assimilatory context, consistent with their greater experience with assimilation in this context. The combination of these mechanisms allows listeners to deal flexibly with variability in speech forms.
Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, 2015, Vol 77, Issue 1, p. 311-28