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Speech Perception in Infants. Peter D. Eimas, Einar R. Siqueland, Peter Jusczyk, and James Vigorito 1971. Purpose of the Study. To compare discriminability of two synthetic speech sounds separated by a fixed difference in VOT in infants under two conditions:

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speech perception in infants

Speech Perception in Infants

Peter D. Eimas, Einar R. Siqueland, Peter Jusczyk, and James Vigorito


purpose of the study
Purpose of the Study
  • To compare discriminability of two synthetic speech sounds separated by a fixed difference in VOT in infants under two conditions:
    • condition 1: the two stimuli lay on opposite sides of the adult phonemic boundary
    • condition 2: the two stimuli are from the same phonemic category
  • Perception cue for voicing in English stop consonants in initial position is the onset of the first formant relative to the second and third formants in adults.
  • Perception of the cue is categorical—speech is special.
  • “Given the strong evidence for universal—and presumably biologically determined—modes of production for the voicing distinction, we should suppose that there might exist a complementary process of perception.” (pg. 304)
  • 1 and 4 month old infants
  • 8 from each age level randomly assigned to the two conditions
  • 10 from each age level assigned to control condition
high amplitude sucking paradigm
High Amplitude Sucking Paradigm

Typically, the experiment takes place in a sound-attenuated chamber. The infant is installed in a reclining seat, and a flexible arm holds a pacifier in his/her mouth. A pressure transducer measures the air pressure inside the pacifier, and sends the signal into a computer.

hasp continued
HASP continued…
  • The experimentation program detects sucks, computes their amplitude and plays a stimulus back whenever a suck is considered as having a high amplitude.
  • Thus, the reinforcing auditory stimulus is presented contingent on the infants’ sucking responses.
  • The more the baby sucks, the more he/she can listen to the sounds
hasp continued7
HASP continued…
  • Baseline measure of sucking is gathered
  • Followed by operant conditioning and habituation phases
  • When a criterion is met (that the number of sucks per minute significantly decreases by at least 20% for 2 consecutive minutes), the experimental groups switch to the test phase, when they listen to the new stimuli (this is the “shift”). 
  • When the babies perceived a difference between the two classes of stimuli, they usually responded to the novelty by increasing their sucking in the minutes following the change of stimuli. 
  • They noticed more of a difference when the stimuli were from different adult phonemic categories
  • Figure 2
results continued
Results continued…
  • The shift data for younger infants differed slightly from the older infants when the stimuli were from the same phonemic category
  • Figure 3

The authors suggest:

  • Infants discriminate voiced and voiceless stop consonants in a manner approximating categorical perception
  • Because of infants’ limited exposure to speech and lack of production experience, this categorical perception in a linguistic mode may be innate