Distributional learning of speech sound categories is gated by sensitive periods

Published Date: 
March 19, 2021

Perceptual attunement to the native phonetic repertoire occurs over the first year of life: an infant's discrimination of non-native phonetic contrasts declines while their discrimination of native phonetic contrasts improves, with the timing of change consistent with sensitive periods. The statistics of speech sound distributions is one source of input used to collapse non-native phonetic category boundaries, while sharpening native ones. Distributional learning can be a domain-general mechanism, yet given the timing of perceptual attunement, we hypothesized that this learning mechanism may be maturationally delimited in the content domain of phonetic categories. Here, we assessed whether sensitivity to the distribution of speech sounds in the environment declines as the period of perceptual attunement closes. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate whether neuronal responses to native 'ra' and 'la' phones are modulated differently in older vs young infants by exposure to either a bimodal or unimodal sound distribution spanning the [r] ~ [l] phoneme space. The native contrast, ra-la, is discriminable at all three ages, ensuring that we were testing the distributional learning mechanism, rather than confounding it with a decline in discrimination to a non-native distinction. English monolingual infants (n = 131) at 5-, 9- and 12-months-old were familiarized to either a unimodal or bimodal distribution of /ra/-/la/ speech sounds. Immediately following familiarization, an ERP oddball task was used to assess discrimination. Results showed that brief exposure to a bi- vs uni-modal distribution is sufficient to alter neuronal responses to subsequent /ra/ vs /la/ speech sounds at 5-months and 9-months, but not at 12-months. These results are the first to capture a progressive decline in sensitivity to distributional statistics in the environment. A potential mechanistic explanation based on critical period biology is discussed.

Rebecca K Reh , Takao K Hensch, Janet F Werker