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Plasticity in infants' speech perception : a role for attention? Yoshida, Katherine Aya

Abstract

Phonetic perception becomes native-like by 10 months of age. A potential mechanism of change, distributional learning, affects the perception of 6-8-month-old infants (Maye et al., 2002). However, it was anticipated that perception may be more difficult to change by 10 months of age, after native categories have developed. In fact, some evidence suggests that by this age, the presence of social interaction may be an important element in infants’ phonetic change (Kuhl et al., 2003). The current work advances the hypothesis that infants’ level of attention, which tends to be higher with social interaction, may be a salient factor facilitating phonetic change. Three experiments were designed to test infants’ phonetic plasticity at 10 months, after phonetic categories have formed. A non-social distributional learning paradigm was chosen, and infants’ attention was monitored to probe whether a facilitating role would be revealed. In Experiment 1, 10-month-old English-learning infants heard tokens from along a continuum that is no longer discriminated at this age that formed a distribution suggestive of a category boundary (useful distinction). The results failed to reveal evidence of discrimination, suggesting that the distributional information did not have any effect. A second experiment used slightly different sound tokens, ones that are farther from the typical English pronunciation and are heard less frequently in the language environment. Infants still failed to discriminate the sounds following the learning period. However, a median split revealed that the high attending infants evinced learning. Experiment 3 increased the length of the learning phase to allow all infants to become sufficiently high attending, and revealed phonetic change. Thus, after phonetic categories have formed, attention appears to be important in learning.

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