Mandarin listeners' perception of English vowels: problems and strategies

Previous research suggests L2 vowel perception problems are often due to the assimilation of L2 sounds to L1 categories. However, there is also evidence for a universal strategy which states listeners will rely on duration cues whenever spectral cues are not sufficient for discriminating L2 vowel contrasts. This study examines Mandarin listeners' perceptual problems with English vowels. In a perception test, a group of adult Mandarin-English bilinguals residing in Canada identified synthesized English /i/-/I/, /u/-/℧/, and /æ/-/Ε/ continua that manipulated vowel spectral and duration cues. Compared with a native English group who responded exclusively to the spectral cues, the majority of native Mandarin listeners failed to show native-like perceptual patterns for the three vowel contrasts. However, they responded heavily and consistently to duration cues for the /i/-/I/ but not for the /u/- /℧/ and /æ/-/Ε/ contrasts. Both group and individual data suggest that native Mandarin listeners used different strategies in perceptual identification of L2 vowel contrasts. Most Mandarin listeners did not appear to have clear category distinctions for /u/-/℧/ and /æ/-/Ε/ pairs and some established incorrect perceptual representation of the /i/-/I/ contrast. The findings did not fully support the universal strategy of using duration cues when non-native vowel contrasts are difficult to perceive.