Whether or not categorical perception results from the operation of a special, language-specific, speech mode remains controversial. In this cross-language (Mandarin Chinese, English) study of the categorical nature of tone perception, we compared native Mandarin and English speakers’ perception of a physical continuum of fundamental frequency contours ranging from a level to rising tone in both Mandarin speech and a homologous (nonspeech) harmonic tone. This design permits us to evaluate the effect of language experience by comparing Chinese and English groups; to determine whether categorical perception is speech-specific or domain-general by comparing speech to nonspeech stimuli for both groups; and to examine whether categorical perception involves a separate categorical process, distinct from regions of sensory discontinuity, by comparing speech to nonspeech stimuli for English listeners. Results show evidence of strong categorical perception of speech stimuli for Chinese but not English listeners. Categorical perception of nonspeech stimuli was comparable to that for speech stimuli for Chinese but weaker for English listeners, and perception of nonspeech stimuli was more categorical for English listeners than was perception of speech stimuli. These findings lead us to adopt a memory-based, multistore model of perception in which categorization is domain-general but influenced by long-term categorical representations.

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