Developmental changes in children’s sensitivity to the role of acoustic variation in the speech stream in conveying speaker affect (vocal paralanguage) were examined. Four-, 7- and 10-year-olds heard utterances in three formats: low-pass filtered, reiterant, and normal speech. The availability of lexical and paralinguistic information varied across these three formats in a way that required children to base their judgments of speaker affect on different configurations of cues in each format.

Across ages, the best performance was obtained when a rich array of acoustic cues was present and when there was no competing lexical information. Four-year-olds performed at chance when judgments had to be based solely on speech prosody in the filtered format and they were unable to selectively attend to paralanguage when discrepant lexical cues were present in normal speech. Seven-year-olds were significantly more sensitive to the paralinguistic role of speech prosody in filtered speech than were 4-year-olds and there was a trend toward greater attention to paralanguage when lexical and paralinguistic cues were inconsistent in normal speech. An integration of the ability to utilize prosodic cues to speaker affect with attention to paralanguage in cases of lexical/paralinguistic discrepancy was observed for 10-year-olds. The results are discussed in terms of the development of a perceptual bias emerging out of selective attention to language.