The Effect of Background Noise on the Word Activation Process in Nonnative Spoken-Word Recognition

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Abstract

This article investigates 2 questions: (1) does the presence of background noise lead to a differential increase in the number of simultaneously activated candidate words in native and nonnative listening? And (2) do individual differences in listeners’ cognitive and linguistic abilities explain the differential effect of background noise on (non-)native speech recognition? English and Dutch students participated in an English word recognition experiment, in which either a word’s onset or offset was masked by noise. The native listeners outperformed the nonnative listeners in all listening conditions. Importantly, however, the effect of noise on the multiple activation process was found to be remarkably similar in native and nonnative listening. The presence of noise increased the set of candidate words considered for recognition in both native and nonnative listening. The results indicate that the observed performance differences between the English and Dutch listeners should not be primarily attributed to a differential effect of noise, but rather to the difference between native and nonnative listening. Additional analyses showed that word-initial information was found to be more important than word-final information during spoken-word recognition. When word-initial information was no longer reliably available word recognition accuracy dropped and word frequency information could no longer be used suggesting that word frequency information is strongly tied to the onset of words and the earliest moments of lexical access. Proficiency and inhibition ability were found to influence nonnative spoken-word recognition in noise, with a higher proficiency in the nonnative language and worse inhibition ability leading to improved recognition performance.

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