Aspiration and VOT

  • Some languages, such as Hindi and Thai, contrast stops based on aspiration or lack of aspiration in addition to VOT.
  • When such distinctions are not made in one's own language, the listener categorizes the non-native sounds into a pre-existing category that does occur in the listener's native language
  • Studies by Werker et al demonstrate the decline of the ability to differentiate between native and non-native sounds, with children from four years on possessing poor differentiation abilities (Werker et al 1981)

figure 4.2 - Werker

This chart shows the result of Werker's study, showing the ability of listeners to accurately classify Hindi stops retroflex [ʈ] and [ɖ] as well as aspirated [tʰa] and [dʰa]. Hindi speaking adults scored the highest across all categories, followed by the infant learners of both languages scoring fairly equally, and finally with the native-English speaking adults scoring lowest, only correctly distinguishing between [tʰa] and [dʰa].


  • Werker, J. (1995). Developmental changes in cross-language speech perception. In L Gleitman (Ed.), An invitation to cognitive science (pp. 87-103). Boston, MA: MIT Press.


  • The tonal contrasts most commonly associated with many Asian languages are referred to as being suprasegmental. This term also refers to stress patterns, quantity contrasts, and various sentence-level prosodic patterns.
  • Not much research has been done highlighting the suprasegmental level of categorical perception.
    • However, studies have shown that both Polish and Spanish learners of English tend to apply their L1 stress assignment rules when performing a stress placement task with spoken English words.
    • It has also been suggested that the use of tones in L1 assists in the perception of tones in non-native L2.
  • Cross-language perception of non-native tonal contrasts. Perception of non-native Mandarin tones by Mandarin-naive listeners.
    • Target language
      • Mandarin - 4 tones, each having a unique pitch contour, perceived categorically by native speakers.
    • Listener languages - various levels of linguistic use of tones, from extensive to minimal.
      • Cantonese - 6 tones, tone system differs systematically from mandarin.
      • Japanese - pitch accented language, much more limited pitch variations than Cantonese.
      • English - non-tone language.
  • This study looks at phonetic and phonological influences on non-native tone perception. The authors posit that the perception of non-native tones is not due to the amount of experience with tone usage, but that perception is influenced by the phonological status and phonetic features of the listener’s native prosodic system.
  • Predictions – The authors expect the Mandarin-naïve Cantonese listeners will have greater difficulty distinguishing between Mandarin tone pairs, relative to the other two groups, because of their native prosodic system.
    • Their perception of the Mandarin tones would assimilate, or categorize, those tones to the closest approximation of a Cantonese tone, therefore hindering their ability to distinguish the Mandarin tones.
    • Neither Japanese or English listeners should have this problem, though Japanese listeners should perform better than English listeners on some tones because of their pitch accent patterns.
  • The results of the study do support the authors’ hypothesis. The Cantonese listeners made consistent errors in identifying those Mandarin tones that most closely resemble Cantonese tones.


  • Best, Catherine T., So, Connie K. Cross-language perception of non-native tonal contrasts: Effects of native phonological and phonetic influences. Language and Speech. Vol 53(2), Jun 2010, pp. 273-293