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Open Access Research article

Thai lexical tone perception in native speakers of Thai, English and Mandarin Chinese: An event-related potentials training study

Edith Kaan1*, Christopher M Barkley2, Mingzhen Bao1 and Ratree Wayland1

Author Affiliations

1 Linguistics, University of Florida, Box 115454, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA

2 Department of Linguistics, University of California at San Diego, 9500 Gillman Drive #108, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA

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BMC Neuroscience 2008, 9:53  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-9-53

Published: 23 June 2008

Abstract

Background

Tone languages such as Thai and Mandarin Chinese use differences in fundamental frequency (F0, pitch) to distinguish lexical meaning. Previous behavioral studies have shown that native speakers of a non-tone language have difficulty discriminating among tone contrasts and are sensitive to different F0 dimensions than speakers of a tone language. The aim of the present ERP study was to investigate the effect of language background and training on the non-attentive processing of lexical tones. EEG was recorded from 12 adult native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, 12 native speakers of American English, and 11 Thai speakers while they were watching a movie and were presented with multiple tokens of low-falling, mid-level and high-rising Thai lexical tones. High-rising or low-falling tokens were presented as deviants among mid-level standard tokens, and vice versa. EEG data and data from a behavioral discrimination task were collected before and after a two-day perceptual categorization training task.

Results

Behavioral discrimination improved after training in both the Chinese and the English groups. Low-falling tone deviants versus standards elicited a mismatch negativity (MMN) in all language groups. Before, but not after training, the English speakers showed a larger MMN compared to the Chinese, even though English speakers performed worst in the behavioral tasks. The MMN was followed by a late negativity, which became smaller with improved discrimination. The High-rising deviants versus standards elicited a late negativity, which was left-lateralized only in the English and Chinese groups.

Conclusion

Results showed that native speakers of English, Chinese and Thai recruited largely similar mechanisms when non-attentively processing Thai lexical tones. However, native Thai speakers differed from the Chinese and English speakers with respect to the processing of late F0 contour differences (high-rising versus mid-level tones). In addition, native speakers of a non-tone language (English) were initially more sensitive to F0 onset differences (low-falling versus mid-level contrast), which was suppressed as a result of training. This result converges with results from previous behavioral studies and supports the view that attentive as well as non-attentive processing of F0 contrasts is affected by language background, but is malleable even in adult learners.