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J Acoust Soc Am. 1996 Oct;100(4 Pt 1):2425-38.

Infant vocalizations in response to speech: vocal imitation and developmental change.

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Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle 98195, USA.


Infants' development of speech begins with a language-universal pattern of production that eventually becomes language specific. One mechanism contributing to this change is vocal imitation. The present study was undertaken to examine developmental change in infants' vocalizations in response to adults' vowels at 12, 16, and 20 weeks of age and test for vocal imitation. Two methodological aspects of the experiment are noteworthy: (a) three different vowel stimuli (/a/, /i/, and /u/) were videotaped and presented to infants by machine so that the adult model could not artifactually influence infant utterances, and (b) infants' vocalizations were analyzed both physically, using computerized spectrographic techniques, and perceptually by trained phoneticians who transcribed the utterances. The spectrographic analyses revealed a developmental change in the production of vowels. Infants' vowel categories become more separated in vowel space from 12 to 20 weeks of age. Moreover, vocal imitation was documented, infants listening to a particular vowel produced vocalizations resembling that vowel. A hypothesis is advanced extending Kuhl's native language magnet (NLM) model to encompass infants' speech production. It is hypothesized that infants listening to ambient language store perceptually derived representations of the speech sounds they hear which in turn serve as targets for the production of speech utterances. NLM unifies previous findings on the effects of ambient language experience on infants' speech perception and the findings reported here that short-term laboratory experience with speech is sufficient to influence infants' speech production.

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