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Two experiments focus on Thai tone perception by native speakers of tone languages (Thai, Cantonese, and Mandarin), a pitch–accent (Swedish), and a nontonal (English) language. In Experiment 1, there was better auditory-only and auditory–visual discrimination by tone and pitch–accent language speakers than by nontone language speakers. Conversely and counterintuitively, there was better visual-only discrimination by nontone language speakers than tone and pitch–accent language speakers. Nevertheless, visual augmentation of auditory tone perception in noise was evident for all five language groups. In Experiment 2, involving discrimination in three fundamental frequency equivalent auditory contexts, tone and pitch–accent language participants showed equivalent discrimination for normal Thai speech, filtered speech, and violin sounds. In contrast, nontone language listeners had significantly better discrimination for violin sounds than filtered speech and in turn speech. Together the results show that tone perception is determined by both auditory and visual information, by acoustic and linguistic contexts, and by universal and experiential factors.
Examples from Chinese, Thai, and Finnish illustrate why researchers cannot always be confident about the precise nature of the word unit. Understanding ambiguities regarding where a word begins and ends, and how to model word recognition when many derivations of a word are possible, is essential for universal theories of reading applied to both developing and expert readers.
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