Children’s early perceptual and late-emerging social sensitivity to accented speech


How early in life, and in what situations, are children sensitive to speakers’ accents? Some researchers have suggested that accent is an early-developing, perhaps intrinsic, signal of group membership. However, other studies find little sensitivity to or awareness of accent in young children. Three experiments reported here examine 3-5-year-olds’ comprehension of, and social decision-making with, a familiar (US English) accent and a foreign (Dutch) accent. Dutch accents were comprehended less well, particularly when salient phonological competitors were present, but social sensitivity was fairly weak until age 6-7 years. The latter finding contrasts with accounts positing early (perhaps innate) social sensitivity to accents.

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