Gender of Speaker Influences Infants' Discrimination of Non-Native Phonemes in a Multimodal Context
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Previous research has shown that infants can discriminate both native and non-native speech contrasts before the age of 10-12 months. After this age, infants' phoneme discrimination starts resembling adults', as they are able to discriminate native contrasts, but lose their sensitivity to non-native ones. However, the majority of these studies have been carried out in a testing context, which is dissimilar to the natural language-learning context experienced by infants. This study was designed to see the influence of speaker-gender and visual speech information on the ability of 11 month-old infants to discriminate the non-native contrasts. Previous research in our laboratory revealed that 11 month-old infants were able to discriminate retroflex and dental Hindi contrasts when the speech was infant-directed, the speaker was a female and visual speech information was available (i.e., infant watched digital movies of female speakers). A follow-up study showed that with an adult-directed male voice and absence of visual speech information, 11 month-old infants did not discriminate the same non-native contrasts. Hence the aim of the present study was to address the questions posed by these two studies. Does the gender of the speaker matter alone? Also, to what extent is the visual speech information helpful for the discriminatory abilities of the infants? Would the manner of speech help infants discriminate the non-native contrasts? The result of the current study show that 11 month-old infants were unable to discriminate between the phonemic Hindi contrasts. Hence gender seems to matter as the presence of male face and voice did not seem to aid discrimination.
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