Phonetic adaptation in interlocutors with mismatched language backgrounds: A case for a phonetic synergy account

Annie J. Olmstead, Navin Viswanathan, Tiana Cowan, Kunning Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Phonetic convergence is the phenomenon that the speech of interlocutors becomes more similar during an interaction. However, in interactions involving non-native speakers, factors such as communicative needs and mismatches in interlocutors’ phonetic repertoire may inhibit phonetic convergence. In this study, we investigated how mismatches at the phonetic level affect speech adjustments in mixed versus shared language pairs. Mandarin L1 speakers speaking English as their second language played a collaborative word matching game either with another Mandarin L1–English L2 speaker (MM pair) or with a monolingual English speaker (ME pairs). Critical stimuli consisted of single-syllable words that differed on medial vowel and/or voicing of the final consonant. These phonetic dimensions were chosen because Mandarin L1–English L2 speakers differ from native English speakers in how they instantiate these distinctions. We evaluated how the different kinds of pairs completed the interactive communicative task. Our results confirmed that L2 speakers differed from L1 speakers in how they created necessary phonetic distinctions. However, these differences depended on whether they were in an MM pair or an ME pair. L2 speakers in MM pairs relied on vowel duration to indicate vowel identity more than did those in the ME pairs. Interestingly, examination of individual speakers’ data revealed different successful solutions across pairs. To explain these findings, we propose the use of phonetic synergy the idea that interlocutors’ adaptations to ensure communicative success are co-constraining and diverse. Broadly, our findings suggest that for a complete understanding of phonetic convergence, precisely manipulating communicative difficulty along specific phonetic dimensions may be crucial to tell apart social, simulative, and communicative adjustments in interaction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101054
JournalJournal of Phonetics
StatePublished - Jul 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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