Speaker variability augments phonological processing in early word learning

Dev Sci. 2009 Mar;12(2):339-49. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00786.x.


Infants in the early stages of word learning have difficulty learning lexical neighbors (i.e. word pairs that differ by a single phoneme), despite their ability to discriminate the same contrast in a purely auditory task. While prior work has focused on top-down explanations for this failure (e.g. task demands, lexical competition), none has examined if bottom-up acoustic-phonetic factors play a role. We hypothesized that lexical neighbor learning could be improved by incorporating greater acoustic variability in the words being learned, as this may buttress still-developing phonetic categories, and help infants identify the relevant contrastive dimension. Infants were exposed to pictures accompanied by labels spoken by either a single or multiple speakers. At test, infants in the single-speaker condition failed to recognize the difference between the two words, while infants who heard multiple speakers discriminated between them.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Phonetics*
  • Speech Acoustics
  • Speech Perception
  • Verbal Behavior
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*
  • Vocabulary