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Cognition. 2013 Nov;129(2):362-78. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.07.015. Epub 2013 Aug 24.

Infant directed speech and the development of speech perception: enhancing development or an unintended consequence?

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Dept. of Psychology, University of Iowa, United States; Dept. of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Iowa, United States; Dept. of Linguistics, University of Iowa, United States; The Delta Center, University of Iowa, United States. Electronic address:


Infant directed speech (IDS) is a speech register characterized by simpler sentences, a slower rate, and more variable prosody. Recent work has implicated it in more subtle aspects of language development. Kuhl et al. (1997) demonstrated that segmental cues for vowels are affected by IDS in a way that may enhance development: the average locations of the extreme "point" vowels (/a/, /i/ and /u/) are further apart in acoustic space. If infants learn speech categories, in part, from the statistical distributions of such cues, these changes may specifically enhance speech category learning. We revisited this by asking (1) if these findings extend to a new cue (Voice Onset Time, a cue for voicing); (2) whether they extend to the interior vowels which are much harder to learn and/or discriminate; and (3) whether these changes may be an unintended phonetic consequence of factors like speaking rate or prosodic changes associated with IDS. Eighteen caregivers were recorded reading a picture book including minimal pairs for voicing (e.g., beach/peach) and a variety of vowels to either an adult or their infant. Acoustic measurements suggested that VOT was different in IDS, but not in a way that necessarily supports better development, and that these changes are almost entirely due to slower rate of speech of IDS. Measurements of the vowel suggested that in addition to changes in the mean, there was also an increase in variance, and statistical modeling suggests that this may counteract the benefit of any expansion of the vowel space. As a whole this suggests that changes in segmental cues associated with IDS may be an unintended by-product of the slower rate of speech and different prosodic structure, and do not necessarily derive from a motivation to enhance development.


Infant directed speech; Phonetic analysis; Speech categorization; Statistical learning; Voices onset time; Vowels

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