Speech sounds are not always perceived in accordance with their acoustic–phonetic content. For example, an early and automatic process of perceptual repair, which ensures conformity of speech inputs to the listener's native language phonology, applies to individual input segments that do not exist in the native inventory or to sound sequences that are illicit according to the native phonotactic restrictions on sound co-occurrences. The present study with Russian and Canadian English speakers shows that listeners may perceive phonetically distinct and licit sound sequences as equivalent when the native language system provides robust evidence for mapping multiple phonetic forms onto a single phonological representation. In Russian, due to an optional but productive t-deletion process that affects /stn/ clusters, the surface forms [sn] and [stn] may be phonologically equivalent and map to a single phonological form /stn/. In contrast, [sn] and [stn] clusters are usually phonologically distinct in (Canadian) English. Behavioral data from identification and discrimination tasks indicated that [sn] and [stn] clusters were more confusable for Russian than for English speakers. The EEG experiment employed an oddball paradigm with nonwords [asna] and [astna] used as the standard and deviant stimuli. A reliable mismatch negativity response was elicited approximately 100 msec postchange in the English group but not in the Russian group. These findings point to a perceptual repair mechanism that is engaged automatically at a prelexical level to ensure immediate encoding of speech inputs in phonological terms, which in turn enables efficient access to the meaning of a spoken utterance.

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