Mandarin-speaking adults using cochlear implants (CI) experience more difficulties in perceiving lexical tones than consonants. This problem may result from the fact that CIs provide relatively sufficient temporal envelope information for consonant perception in quiet environments, but do not convey the fine spectro-temporal information considered to be necessary for accurate pitch perception. Another possibility is that Mandarin speakers with post-lingual hearing loss have developed language-specific use of these acoustic cues, impeding lexical tone processing under CI conditions. To investigate this latter hypothesis, syllable discrimination and word identification abilities for Mandarin consonants (place and manner) and lexical-tone contrasts (tones 1 vs 3 and 1 vs 2) were measured in 15 Mandarin-speaking children using CIs and age-matched children with normal hearing (NH). In the discrimination task, only children using CIs exhibited significantly lower scores for consonant place contrasts compared to other contrasts, including lexical tones. In the word identification task, children using CIs showed lower performance for all contrasts compared to children with NH, but they both showed specific difficulties with tone 1 vs 2 contrasts. This study suggests that Mandarin-speaking children using CIs are able to discriminate and identify lexical tones and, perhaps more surprisingly, have more difficulties when discriminating consonants.
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