Lexical Tone is Perceived Relative to Locally Surrounding Context, Vowel Quality to Preceding Context

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Important speech cues such as lexical tone and vowel quality are perceptually contrasted to the distribution of those same cues in surrounding contexts. However, it is unclear whether preceding and following contexts have similar influences, and to what extent those influences are modulated by the auditory history of previous trials. To investigate this, Cantonese participants labeled sounds from (a) a tone continuum (mid- to high-level), presented with a context that had raised or lowered fundamental frequency (F0) values and (b) a vowel quality continuum (/u/ to /o/), where the context had raised or lowered first formant (F1) values. Contexts with high or low F0/F1 were presented in separate blocks or intermixed in 1 block. Contexts were presented following (Experiment 1) or preceding the target continuum (Experiment 2). Contrastive effects were found for both tone and vowel quality (e.g., decreased F0 values in contexts lead to more high tone target judgments and vice versa). Importantly, however, lexical tone was only influenced by F0 in immediately preceding and following contexts. Vowel quality was only influenced by the F1 in preceding contexts, but this extended to contexts from preceding trials. Contextual influences on tone and vowel quality are qualitatively different, which has important implications for understanding the mechanism of context effects in speech perception.

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