Non-native processing of German vowel contrasts: Asymmetric responses to German mid-high vowels in Spanish native speakers

Vortragende(r) Ulrike Dohmas
Institution(en) Philipps-Universität Marburg
Datum 30.06.2022, 2:00 pm
Uhrzeit 14:00 Uhr
Ort Virtual: Please send an e-mail to to get the Zoom invitation link. To be let in, use your proper name.


In the present talk, two perception studies will be presented in which a passive mismatch-negativity paradigm (MMN) was utilized to investigate how i) German native speakers process the German schwa-vowel (/ə/) in contrast to front mid-high /e/ and front mid-low /ɛ/ and ii) how Spanish L2-learners of German process the non-native contrasts between these vowels. The phonological status of German schwa is still a matter of debate due to the fact that schwa rarely contrasts with other vowels. Unlike other German vowel phonemes, schwa never occurs in stressed syllables. Therefore, it has been suggested that schwa is not phonemic in nature, but serves as an epenthetic vowel or fulfils prosodic requirements of German morphological categories (Wiese 1996, 2010). In addition, since schwa is non-native for Spanish speakers, the question arises whether schwa can be differentiated from /e/ and /ɛ/. The objective of the present study was to investigate whether the perception of central schwa (/ə/) in contrast to /e/ and /ɛ/ yield patterns of mismatch-negativities (MMN) that allow to evaluate the role of schwa in the hearer’s phonological systems. The MMN response is evoked by a rare and irregularly presented stimulus (= deviant) in the context of another frequent stimulus (= standard) and not only reflects the acoustic difference between standard and deviant, but also whether the sounds involved can be mapped onto a sound category in the hearer’s phonological inventory. Sixteen German participants and 16 Spanish native speakers with a high command of German as a second language participated in a passive oddball experiment and were presented with syllables including the vowels of interest ([ge], [gɛ], [gə]). Each vowel was presented once as a standard stimulus with the other two vowels as deviants. We recorded a neurophysiological discrimination response (mismatch negativity, MMN) and computed an identity MMN for each of the three vowels. The MMN patterns found for both groups will be discussed in light of models on vowel perception and vowel representation, on the status of /ə/ in the German vowel system, and on language-specific versus language-universal perception in L2 processing.

About Ulrike Domahs

Ulrike Domahs currently holds a professorship for neurolinguistics at the Institute of German Linguistics at the Philipps-Universität Marburg where she investigates cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying language processing in adults, children, multilingual, and clinical populations. In pursuing this goal, she mainly applies electrophysiological and behavioural methods. Crucially, with her research Ulrike Domahs contributes to the field of neurophonetics, studying the neuronal underpinnings of segmental and suprasegmental speech production and perception. 

Ulrike Domahs received her PhD in General Linguistics from the University of Düsseldorf in 2003, before she worked as a research associate at the Institute of German Linguistics at the Phillips-Universität Marburg from 2003 to 2013. From 2008 to 2013 Ulrike Domahs held three deputy professorships in the field of Linguistics and Psycholinguistics, in German Linguistics, and in German Linguistics and Language Didactics.  From 2013 to 2015 she then was professor for German Linguistics and Language Didactics at the University of Cologne and for German language and child development at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano from 2015 to 2017.