Directional asymmetries reveal a universal bias in adult vowel perception
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Research on cross-language vowel perception in both infants and adults has shown that for many vowel contrasts, discrimination is easier when the same pair of vowels is presented in one direction compared to the reverse direction. According to one account, these directional asymmetries reflect a universal bias favoring “focal” vowels (i.e., vowels whose adjacent formants are close in frequency, which concentrates acoustic energy into a narrower spectral region). An alternative, but not mutually exclusive, account is that such effects reflect an experience-dependent bias favoring prototypical instances of native-language vowel categories. To disentangle the effects of focalization and prototypicality, the authors first identified a certain location in phonetic space where vowels were consistently categorized as /u/ by both Canadian-English and Canadian-French listeners, but that nevertheless varied in their stimulus goodness (i.e., the best Canadian-French /u/ exemplars were more focal compared to the best Canadian-English /u/ exemplars). In subsequent AX discrimination tests, both Canadian-English and Canadian-French listeners performed better at discriminating changes from less to more focal /u/’s compared to the reverse, regardless of variation in prototypicality. These findings demonstrate a universal bias favoring vowels with greater formant convergence that operates independently of biases related to language-specific prototype categorization.