Desirable and undesirable difficulties: Influences of variability, training schedule, and aptitude on nonnative phonetic learning

Abstract

Adult listeners often struggle to learn to distinguish speech sounds not present in their native language. High-variability training sets (i.e., stimuli produced by multiple talkers or stimuli that occur in diverse phonological contexts) often result in better retention of the learned information, as well as increased generalization to new instances. However, high-variability training is also more challenging, and not every listener can take advantage of this kind of training. An open question is how variability should be introduced to the learner in order to capitalize on the benefits of such training without derailing the training process. The current study manipulated phonological variability as native English speakers learned a difficult nonnative (Hindi) contrast by presenting the nonnative contrast in the context of two different vowels (/i/ and /u/). In a between-subjects design, variability was manipulated during training and during test. Participants were trained in the evening hours and returned the next morning for reassessment to test for retention of the speech sounds. We found that blocked training was superior to interleaved training for both learning and retention, but for learners in the interleaved training group, higher pretraining aptitude predicted better identification performance. Further, pretraining discrimination aptitude positively predicted changes in phonetic discrimination after a period of off-line consolidation, regardless of the training manipulation. These findings add to a growing literature suggesting that variability may come at a cost in phonetic learning and that aptitude can affect both learning and retention of nonnative speech sounds.

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Change history

  • 05 February 2020

    Due to a production error, some IPA symbols were not included. The original article has been corrected.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Data files and analysis scripts for this project can be found at https://osf.io/ujm4f/.

  2. 2.

    Note that because we averaged over trials in this analysis (and all analyses of the discrimination task), it was not possible to include random slopes because there was not enough data to estimate them.

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Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported in part by the National Science Foundation under Grant DGE-1747486, NSF IGERT DGE-1144399 to the University of Connecticut, and NSF BCS 1554510 to E.B.M. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

The data and analysis scripts are available at https://osf.io/ujm4f/, and the experiment was not preregistered.

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Correspondence to Pamela Fuhrmeister.

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The original version of this article was revised: Due to a production error, some IPA symbols were not included.

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Fuhrmeister, P., Myers, E.B. Desirable and undesirable difficulties: Influences of variability, training schedule, and aptitude on nonnative phonetic learning. Atten Percept Psychophys 82, 2049–2065 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13414-019-01925-y

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Keywords

  • Variability
  • Nonnative phonetic learning
  • Consolidation
  • Individual differences