To test the effect of linguistic experience on the perception of a cue that is known to be effective in distinguishing between [r] and [l] in English, 21 Japanese and 39 American adults were tested on discrimination of a set of synthetic speech-like stimuli. The 13 “speech” stimuli in this set varied in the initial stationary frequency of the third formant (F3) and its subsequent transition into the vowel over a range sufficient to produce the perception of [r a] and [l a] for American subjects and to produce [r a] (which is not in phonemic contrast to [l a ]) for Japanese subjects. Discrimination tests of a comparable set of stimuli consisting of the isolated F3 components provided a “nonspeech” control. For Americans, the discrimination of the speech stimuli was nearly categorical, i.e., comparison pairs which were identified as different phonemes were discriminated with high accuracy, while pairs which were identified as the same phoneme were discriminated relatively poorly. In comparison, discrimination of speech stimuli by Japanese subjects was only slightly better than chance for all comparison pairs. Performance on nonspeech stimuli, however, was virtually identical for Japanese and American subjects; both groups showed highly accurate discrimination of all comparison pairs. These results suggest that the effect of linguistic experience is specific to perception in the “speech mode.”

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© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 1975