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Mem Cognit. 2000 Jul;28(5):789-97.

Is subjective word familiarity a meter of ambient language? A natural experiment on effects of perceptual experience.

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  • 1Spoken Language Processes Laboratory, House Ear Institute, Los Angeles, CA 90057, USA.


The present study examined the sensitivity of a subjective familiarity measure to differences in word exposure within and between populations that differ dramatically in their perceptual experience. Descriptive measures of language ability and subjective familiarity ratings for 450 words were collected from a group of college-educated adults with normal hearing and a group of college-educated deaf adults. The results demonstrate the sensitivity of subjective familiarity ratings to both between- and within-group differences in word experience. Specifically, the deaf participants consistently rated words as less familiar than did hearing participants. Furthermore, item-level correlations within a participant group were higher than ones between groups. Within groups, mean familiarity ratings were correlated with descriptive measures of language ability. The results are discussed in relation to a simple sampling model of word experience and the language experience of the participant groups.

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