The neural processing of phonemes is shaped by linguistic analysis
Speech perception entails the mapping of the acoustic waveform to its linguistic representation. For this transformation to succeed, the speech signal needs to be tracked across multiple temporal scales in order to decode linguistic units ranging from phonemes to sentences. Here, we investigate how linguistic knowledge, and the temporal scale of linguistic analysis, influence the neural processing of a fundamental linguistic unit, the phoneme. To obtain control over the linguistic scale of analysis, we use a novel speech-quilting algorithm (Overath et al., 2015) to control the acoustic structure available at different linguistic units (phoneme, syllable, word). To obtain control over the linguistic content, independent of the temporal acoustic structure, we construct speech quilts from both familiar (English) and foreign (Korean) languages. We recorded electroencephalography in healthy participants and show that the neural response to phonemes, the phoneme-related potential, is shaped by linguistic context only in a familiar language, but not in a foreign language. The results suggest that the processing of the acoustic properties of a fundamental linguistic unit, the phoneme, is already shaped by linguistic analysis.
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