Relative Weighting of Semantic and Syntactic Cues in Native and Non-Native Listeners’ Recognition of English Sentences

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Non-native listeners do not recognize English sentences as effectively as native listeners, especially in noise. It is not entirely clear to what extent such group differences arise from differences in relative weight of semantic versus syntactic cues. This study quantified the use and weighting of these contextual cues via Boothroyd and Nittrouer’s j and k factors. The j represents the probability of recognizing sentences with or without context, whereas the k represents the degree to which context improves recognition performance.


Four groups of 13 normal-hearing young adult listeners participated. One group consisted of native English monolingual (EMN) listeners, whereas the other three consisted of non-native listeners contrasting in their language dominance and first language: English-dominant Russian-English, Russian-dominant Russian-English, and Spanish-dominant Spanish-English bilinguals. All listeners were presented three sets of four-word sentences: high-predictability sentences included both semantic and syntactic cues, low-predictability sentences included syntactic cues only, and zero-predictability sentences included neither semantic nor syntactic cues. Sentences were presented at 65 dB SPL binaurally in the presence of speech-spectrum noise at +3 dB SNR. Listeners orally repeated each sentence and recognition was calculated for individual words as well as the sentence as a whole.


Comparable j values across groups for high-predictability, low-predictability, and zero-predictability sentences suggested that all listeners, native and non-native, utilized contextual cues to recognize English sentences. Analysis of the k factor indicated that non-native listeners took advantage of syntax as effectively as EMN listeners. However, only English-dominant bilinguals utilized semantics to the same extent as EMN listeners; semantics did not provide a significant benefit for the two non-English-dominant groups. When combined, semantics and syntax benefitted EMN listeners significantly more than all three non-native groups of listeners.


Language background influenced the use and weighting of semantic and syntactic cues in a complex manner. A native language advantage existed in the effective use of both cues combined. A language-dominance effect was seen in the use of semantics. No first-language effect was present for the use of either or both cues. For all non-native listeners, syntax contributed significantly more to sentence recognition than semantics, possibly due to the fact that semantics develops more gradually than syntax in second-language acquisition. The present study provides evidence that Boothroyd and Nittrouer’s j and k factors can be successfully used to quantify the effectiveness of contextual cue use in clinically relevant, linguistically diverse populations.

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