The primary goal of this study was to investigate the effects of reverberation on Mandarin tone and vowel recognition of cochlear implant (CI) users and normal-hearing (NH) listeners. To understand the performance of Mandarin tone recognition, this study also measured participants’ pitch perception and the availability of temporal envelope cues in reverberation.
Fifteen CI users and nine NH listeners, all Mandarin speakers, were asked to recognize Mandarin single-vowels produced in four lexical tones and rank harmonic complex tones in pitch with different reverberation times (RTs) from 0 to 1 second. Virtual acoustic techniques were used to simulate rooms with different degrees of reverberation. Vowel duration and correlation between amplitude envelope and fundamental frequency (F0) contour were analyzed for different tones as a function of the RT.
Vowel durations of different tones significantly increased with longer RTs. Amplitude-F0 correlation remained similar for the falling Tone 4 but greatly decreased for the other tones in reverberation. NH listeners had robust pitch-ranking, tone recognition, and vowel recognition performance as the RT increased. Reverberation significantly degraded CI users’ pitch-ranking thresholds but did not significantly affect the overall scores of tone and vowel recognition with CIs. Detailed analyses of tone confusion matrices showed that CI users reduced the flat Tone-1 responses but increased the falling Tone-4 responses in reverberation, possibly due to the falling amplitude envelope of late reflections after the original vowel segment. CI users’ tone recognition scores were not correlated with their pitch-ranking thresholds.
NH listeners can reliably recognize Mandarin tones in reverberation using salient pitch cues from spectral and temporal fine structures. However, CI users have poorer pitch perception using F0-related amplitude modulations that are reduced in reverberation. Reverberation distorts speech amplitude envelopes, which affect the distribution of tone responses but not the accuracy of tone recognition with CIs. Recognition of vowels with stationary formant trajectories is not affected by reverberation for both NH listeners and CI users, regardless of the available spectral resolution. Future studies should test how the relatively stable vowel and tone recognition may contribute to sentence recognition in reverberation of Mandarin-speaking CI users.