Talker familiarity advantage for children with and without hearing loss

young girl watching screen with image of 3 frogs

Talker familiarity has been shown to aid in spoken word recognition in quiet for children and can improve word recognition in the presence of a competing talker for infants and adults (Barker & Newman 2004; Johnsrude et al. 2013; Levi 2015). The reason for this benefit is not well understood but may result from increased attention to familiar voices or from the existence of a mental template that facilitates the extraction of a familiar voice from competing sounds. Given that children often learn about speech and language from familiar voices in multitalker environments, it is important to determine the role of talker familiarity in these contexts. By determining the factors that contribute to children’s use of voice characteristics for speech-in-speech understanding, we can identify effective communication strategies to improve communication outcomes for children at different points in their development.

Children’s immature ability to use acoustic voice differences between talkers to improve speech-in-speech recognition

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A primary focus of our research is on children’s ability to utilize individual voice characteristics. One current project examines the use of F0 contour differences between talkers by children with and without hearing loss. F0 contour refers to the natural variation, or rise and fall, of F0 (or voice pitch) within an utterance. While talker differences in mean F0 can improve speech-in-speech recognition for adults, children’s ability to use mean F0 differences remains immature into adolescence (Flaherty et al. 2018). One explanation for this age effect is that children rely more than adults on dynamic, time-varying acoustic cues that contain redundant information (Nittrouer 2004; Flaherty et al. 2017). As children gain experience with language, their ability to use a wider variety of acoustic cues improves and they become less reliant on one specific type of acoustic property.