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Meghan Sumner

Meghan Sumner of Stanford University will speak at the UCSD Linguistics Department Colloquium on May 10, 2010, at 2:00 pm in AP&M 4301.

The effect of experience in the perception and representation of unfamiliar accents

Variation in the speech signal abounds. A single word is produced differently each time it is uttered by a single speaker. Words also vary across speakers depending on unpredictable indexical characteristics (e.g., gender, age; Abercrombie, 1967), or more systematic, predictable characteristics (e.g., dialect, native language). In short, spoken words are variable. The task of recognizing spoken words is notoriously difficult. Once dialectal variation is considered, the difficulty of this task increases. When living in a new dialect region, however, processing difficulties associated with dialectal variation dissipate over time. While the issue of variation has been gaining attention in the field, the majority of attention has been given to indexical variation. The projects that have focused on language-specific phonological and phonetic variation have focused either on arbitrary variation (e.g., the processing of service vs. gervice; Connine et al., 1993) or assimilation (e.g., Gow, 2001). Little attention has been paid to the processing of words with multiple surface instantiations or the effect of experience in the perception and representation of novel or unfamiliar variants.

Through a series of priming tasks (form priming, semantic priming, and long-term repetition priming), I examine the general issue of variation in spoken word recognition, while investigating the role of experience in perception and representation. The main questions addressed in this talk are: (1) How are unfamiliar variants recognized and stored, and (2) How are these variants accommodated by listeners with different levels of exposure to the accent? Four claims are made based on the results: (1) Dialect production is not representative of dialect perception and representation, (2) Experience is linked with a listener's ability to recognize and represent spoken words, (3) There is a general benefit for having the status as the "ideal" variant, even if this variant is not the most common one, and (4) This ideal variant changes along with expectations about a speaker.  Results of this research have implications for autonomous models of phonology and raise questions regarding the mechanisms underlying listener accommodation.