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Cognition. 2005 Mar;95(2):B15-26.

Infants are sensitive to within-category variation in speech perception.

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  • 1Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627, USA. bob-mcmurray@uiowa.edu

Abstract

Previous research on speech perception in both adults and infants has supported the view that consonants are perceived categorically; that is, listeners are relatively insensitive to variation below the level of the phoneme. More recent work, on the other hand, has shown adults to be systematically sensitive to within category variation [McMurray, B., Tanenhaus, M., & Aslin, R. (2002). Gradient effects of within-category phonetic variation on lexical access, Cognition, 86 (2), B33-B42.]. Additionally, recent evidence suggests that infants are capable of using within-category variation to segment speech and to learn phonetic categories. Here we report two studies of 8-month-old infants, using the head-turn preference procedure, that examine more directly infants' sensitivity to within-category variation. Infants were exposed to 80 repetitions of words beginning with either /b/ or /p/. After exposure, listening times to tokens of the same category with small variations in VOT were significantly different than to both the originally exposed tokens and to the cross-category-boundary competitors. Thus infants, like adults, show systematic sensitivity to fine-grained, within-category detail in speech perception.

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