Introduction: Former studies have shown that a pitch change in utterances in speech was detected accurately in both native (French) and unfamiliar (Portuguese) language and produced an early negativity and a late positivity in the event-related brain potentials (ERPs), more clearly marked in the native language (Schӧn et al., 2004; Marques et al., 2007). The present study used the same design to further investigate the influence of the familiarity of the language context on pitch perception with Italian participants. The aim was to examine the effects of pitch change in the native (Italian) and foreign (French) languages, and in meaningless sentences preserving the intonational contour of the mother tongue (jabberwocky). Method: Weak and strong pitch changes incongruous with the preceding context were compared to a control congruous condition. Participants had to decide as fast and as accurately as possible if they perceived a pitch change. Both behavioral (accuracy and reaction times e RTs) and ERP measures were analyzed. Results: Results showed optimal accuracy and faster RTs in Italian, followed by jabberwocky, and then French. The same trend was present in ERP data, with an early negativity over temporal sites and a late positivity over parietal sites. These effects developed earlier and were more pronounced for the strong incongruity in Italian and in jabberwocky than in French. Conclusions: The similarity of results for Italian (congruous) and jabberwocky sentences on one hand, and the difference of results for French sentences, on the other hand, show that familiarity with intonational contour of utterances/speech provided essential cues to perform the task.
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