Talker variability is not always the right noise: 14 month olds struggle to learn dissimilar word-object pairs under talker variability conditions.
Seminal work by Stager & Werker (1997) finds that 14-month-olds can rapidly learn two word-object pairings if the words are distinct (e.g. "neem" and "lif") but not similar (e.g. the minimal pair "bih" and "dih"). More recently, studies have found that adding talker variability during exposure to new word-object pairs lets 14-month-olds succeed on the more challenging minimal pair task, presumably due to talker variability highlighting the "relevant" consistencies between the similar words (Rost & McMurray, 2009; Galle et al., 2015; Hohle et al., 2020). It remains an open question, however, whether talker variability would be similarly useful for learning new word-object pairings when the words themselves are already distinct, or whether instead this extra variability may extinguish learning due to increased task demands. We find evidence for the latter. Namely, in our sample of 54 English-learning 14-month-olds, training infants on two word-object pairings (e.g. "neem" with a dog toy and "lof" with a kitchen tool) only led them to notice when the words and objects were switched if they were trained with single-speaker identical word tokens. When the training featured talker variability (from one or multiple talkers) infants failed to learn the pairings. We suggest that when talker variability is not necessary to highlight the invariant differences between similar words, it may actually increase task difficulty, making it harder for infants to determine what to attend to in the earliest phases of word learning.
Bulgarelli, F; Bergelson, E
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