Pre-attentive sensitivity to vowel duration reveals native phonology and predicts learning of second-language sounds

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In some languages (e.g. Czech), changes in vowel duration affect word meaning, while in others (e.g. Spanish) they do not. Yet for other languages (e.g. Dutch), the linguistic role of vowel duration remains unclear. To reveal whether Dutch represents vowel length in its phonology, we compared auditory pre-attentive duration processing in native and non-native vowels across Dutch, Czech, and Spanish. Dutch duration sensitivity patterned with Czech but was larger than Spanish in the native vowel, while it was smaller than Czech and Spanish in the non-native vowel. An interpretation of these findings suggests that in Dutch, duration is used phonemically but it might be relevant for the identity of certain native vowels only. Furthermore, the finding that Spanish listeners are more sensitive to duration in non-native than in native vowels indicates that a lack of duration differences in one’s native language could be beneficial for second-language learning.

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