Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Foreign-language learning is a prime example of a task that entails perceptual learning. The correct comprehension of foreign-language speech requires the correct recognition of speech sounds. The most difficult speech–sound contrasts for foreign-language learners often are the ones that have multiple phonetic cues, especially if the cues are weighted differently in the foreign and native languages. The present study aimed to determine whether non-native-like cue weighting could be changed by using phonetic training. Before the training, we compared the use of spectral and duration cues of English /i/ and /I/ vowels (e.g., beat vs. bit) between native Finnish and English speakers. In Finnish, duration is used phonologically to separate short and long phonemes, and therefore Finns were expected to weight duration cues more than native English speakers. The cross-linguistic differences and training effects were investigated with behavioral and electrophysiological methods, in particular by measuring the MMN brain response that has been used to probe long-term memory representations for speech sounds. The behavioral results suggested that before the training, the Finns indeed relied more on duration in vowel recognition than the native English speakers did. After the training, however, the Finns were able to use the spectral cues of the vowels more reliably than before. Accordingly, the MMN brain responses revealed that the training had enhanced the Finns' ability to preattentively process the spectral cues of the English vowels. This suggests that as a result of training, plastic changes had occurred in the weighting of phonetic cues at early processing stages in the cortex.