Discriminability of sound contrasts in the face of speaker variation quantified


How does a naive language learner deal with speaker variation irrelevant to distinguishing word meanings? Experimental data is contradictory, and incompatible models have been proposed. Here, we examine basic assumptions regarding the acoustic signal the learner deals with: Is speaker variability a hurdle in discriminating sounds or can it easily be ignored? To this end, we summarize existing infant data. We then present machine-based discriminability scores of sound pairs obtained without any language knowledge. Our results show that speaker variability decreases sound contrast discriminability, and that some contrasts are affected more than others. However, chance performance is rare; most contrasts remain discriminable in the face of speaker variation. We take our results to mean that speaker variation is not a uniform hurdle to discriminating sound contrasts, and careful examination is necessary when planning and interpreting studies testing whether and to what extent infants (and adults) are sensitive to speaker differences.

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