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Speaker variability augments phonological processing in early word learning


Address for correspondence: Gwyneth C. Rost, 309 WJHSC, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA; e-mail:


Infants in the early stages of word learning have difficulty learning lexical neighbors (i.e. word pairs that differ by a single phoneme), despite their ability to discriminate the same contrast in a purely auditory task. While prior work has focused on top-down explanations for this failure (e.g. task demands, lexical competition), none has examined if bottom-up acoustic-phonetic factors play a role. We hypothesized that lexical neighbor learning could be improved by incorporating greater acoustic variability in the words being learned, as this may buttress still-developing phonetic categories, and help infants identify the relevant contrastive dimension. Infants were exposed to pictures accompanied by labels spoken by either a single or multiple speakers. At test, infants in the single-speaker condition failed to recognize the difference between the two words, while infants who heard multiple speakers discriminated between them.