Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Spread of the Phonological Neighborhood Influences Spoken Word Recognition

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Spread of the Phonological Neighborhood Influences Spoken Word Recognition

Article excerpt

In three experiments, the processing of words that had the same overall number of neighbors but varied in the spread of the neighborhood (i.e., the number of individual phonemes that could be changed to form real words) was examined. In an auditory lexical decision task, a naming task, and a same-different task, words in which changes at only two phoneme positions formed neighbors were responded to more quickly than words in which changes at all three phoneme positions formed neighbors. Additional analyses ruled out an account based on the computationally derived uniqueness points of the words. Although previous studies (e.g., Luce & Pisoni, 1998) have shown that the number of phonological neighbors influences spoken word recognition, the present results show that the nature of the relationship of the neighbors to the target word-as measured by the spread of the neighborhood-also influences spoken word recognition. The implications of this result for models of spoken word recognition are discussed.

In research on spoken language processing, neighborhood density refers to the number of words that sound similar to a given word: Words with many neighbors, or similar words, are said to have dense neighborhoods, whereas words with few neighbors are said to have sparse neighborhoods. Several studies in English have demonstrated that neighborhood density influences various aspects of spoken language processing, including lexical acquisition (e.g., Storkel, 2002, 2004), speech production (e.g., Vitevitch, 1997,2002b; Vitevitch & Sommers, 2003), and spoken word recognition (Luce & Pisoni, 1998; see also Vitevitch & Rodriguez, 2005, for a discussion of the influence of neighborhood density on spoken word recognition in Spanish).

In several laboratory-based spoken word recognition tasks, Luce and Pisoni (1998) demonstrated that English words with sparse neighborhoods are responded to more quickly and accurately than those with dense neighborhoods, suggesting that multiple word forms are activated and compete with each other during spoken word recognition. Words with large numbers of phonological neighbors (i.e., dense neighborhoods) are subject to greater competition and therefore recognized more slowly and less accurately than words with few phonological neighbors (i.e., sparse neighborhoods).

Vitevitch (2002c) observed a similar processing disadvantage for words with dense neighborhoods in an analysis of a corpus containing speech perception errors, known as "slips of the ear," that were collected via naturalistic observation. An example of a slip of the ear is erroneously hearing the correctly produced question "What's wrong with her bike?" as "What's wrong with her back?" (Bond, 1999). In analyzing the misperceived words in Bond's corpus, Vitevitch (2002c) found that slips of the ear tended to occur in words with dense phonological neighborhoods, further suggesting that multiple word forms are activated and compete during spoken word recognition.

The previously discussed studies clearly demonstrate that the number of phonologically related word forms that are activated influences spoken word recognition: Words with few neighbors are recognized more quickly and more accurately than words with many neighbors in English. Now, consider two words with the same number of phonological neighbors. Does some other factor, such as the distribution of the neighbors in the lexical neighborhood, influence the speed and accuracy of spoken word recognition? By way of illustration, consider the words mop (/map/) and mob (/mob/). When a single phoneme substitutes any of the phonemes in the word mop, phonological neighbors are formed (e.g., hop, mop, modi). However, similar substitutions in the word mob produce phonological neighbors at only two of the three phoneme positions (e.g., rob, m*b, mock); no real word in English is formed when the phoneme in the medial position of the word mob is substituted. …

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