Infants’ and Adults’ Use of Temporal Cues in Consonant Discrimination

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Abstract

Objectives:

Adults can use slow temporal envelope cues, or amplitude modulation (AM), to identify speech sounds in quiet. Faster AM cues and the temporal fine structure, or frequency modulation (FM), play a more important role in noise. This study assessed whether fast and slow temporal modulation cues play a similar role in infants’ speech perception by comparing the ability of normal-hearing 3-month-olds and adults to use slow temporal envelope cues in discriminating consonants contrasts.

Design:

English consonant–vowel syllables differing in voicing or place of articulation were processed by 2 tone-excited vocoders to replace the original FM cues with pure tones in 32 frequency bands. AM cues were extracted in each frequency band with 2 different cutoff frequencies, 256 or 8 Hz. Discrimination was assessed for infants and adults using an observer-based testing method, in quiet or in a speech-shaped noise.

Results:

For infants, the effect of eliminating fast AM cues was the same in quiet and in noise: a high proportion of infants discriminated when both fast and slow AM cues were available, but less than half of the infants also discriminated when only slow AM cues were preserved. For adults, the effect of eliminating fast AM cues was greater in noise than in quiet: All adults discriminated in quiet whether or not fast AM cues were available, but in noise eliminating fast AM cues reduced the percentage of adults reaching criterion from 71 to 21%.

Conclusions:

In quiet, infants seem to depend on fast AM cues more than adults do. In noise, adults seem to depend on FM cues to a greater extent than infants do. However, infants and adults are similarly affected by a loss of fast AM cues in noise. Experience with the native language seems to change the relative importance of different acoustic cues for speech perception.

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