Cross-linguistic generalization of the distal rate effect: Speech rate in context affects whether listeners hear a function word in Chinese Mandarin

Author(s): Wei Lai and Laura Dilley


Recent findings show that altering the speech rate of the context several syllables away from a word (i.e., the distal context) can cause the word to disappear in perception in non-tonal Indo-European languages like English (Dilley and Pitt, 2010) and Russian (Dilley et al., 2013). This study investigated the distal rate effect in Chinese Mandarin, a tonal language belonging to the Sino-Tibetan language family. We examined whether perception of the monosyllabic function word 'yi'(/i/) was affected by the distal rate in casual speech. The results showed that slowing the distal rate caused the function word to be perceived significantly less often than if the distal rate were normal or speeded. The results support a theory of generalized rate normalization, according to which distal speech rate shapes listeners’ expectancy towards proximal speaking rate, thereby influencing the number of morphophonological units perceived. This study supports the idea that certain spectro-temporal parameters might be universally tracked for word segmentation across languages and language families, extending prior work on word segmentation to Chinese Mandarin.