Although acquisition of Chinese lexical tones by second language (L2) learners has been intensively investigated, very few studies focused on categorical perception (CP) of lexical tones by highly proficient L2 learners. This study was designed to address this issue with behavioral and electrophysiological measures.
Behavioral identification and auditory event-related potential (ERP) components for speech discrimination, including mismatch negativity (MMN), N2b, and P3b, were measured in 23 native Korean speakers who were highly proficient late L2 learners of Chinese. For the ERP measures, both passive and active listening tasks were administered to examine the automatic and attention-controlled discriminative responses to within- and across-category differences for carefully chosen stimuli from a lexical tone continuum.
The behavioral task revealed native-like identification function of the tonal continuum. Correspondingly, the active oddball task demonstrated larger P3b amplitudes for the across-category than within-category deviants in the left recording site, indicating clear CP of lexical tones in the attentive condition. By contrast, similar MMN responses in the right recording site were elicited by both the across- and within-category deviants, indicating the absence of CP effect with automatic phonological processing of lexical tones at the pre-attentive stage even in L2 learners with high Chinese proficiency.
Although behavioral data showed clear evidence of categorical perception of lexical tones in proficient L2 learners, ERP measures from passive and active listening tasks demonstrated fine-grained sensitivity in terms of response polarity, latency, and laterality in revealing different aspects of auditory versus linguistic processing associated with speech decoding by means of largely implicit native language acquisition versus effortful explicit L2 learning.