Under the Hood

Language Arts: When Listening, Kids Find It Easier To Understand The Voices They Know

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Familiar voices improve the language processing ability of not just adults but also school-age children. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The familiar talker advantage refers to the fact that listeners find it easiest to process language spoken by someone well known. In a crowded room, for example, you would find it easier to understand what your sister is telling you than to decipher what a stranger is saying. Now, research from New York University shows how familiar voices improve the processing ability of not just adults but also school-age children. However, this advantage only helps kids when listening to words they already know well. When it comes to new words, though, a familiar voice doesn't help at all.

The current study began with researchers recruiting 41 children between the ages of 7 and 12. First, the children listened to a series of words and repeated them to give researchers an idea of each child’s ability when identifying words. Next, the children spent five days learning the voices of three German-accented speakers, represented by cartoon characters on the computer screen. The characters spoke a series of single words, and soon the children recognized the characters by their voices. After the children had learned the characters, the researchers asked the children to complete tasks involving words spoken by six German-accented speakers. Three of the six speakers were the familiar characters the children already knew, and half the words were everyday words, such as cat, book, and hug. The other half, though, were unknown words like loathe, sage, and void.

So how did the children fare? The kids could more accurately repeat the words spoken by familiar voices, demonstrating that their spoken language processing improved with familiar speakers. However, this improvement was limited to the words children were likely to know, and the familiarity was not useful for words they didn't know. "It didn't matter who the children heard speak an unfamiliar word — a familiar voice or a stranger — because they were just as likely or unlikely to understand what was said," said Dr. Susannah Levi, assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University.

Importantly, children with the poorest performance at the start of the experiment showed the greatest benefit from hearing familiar speakers. Levi said these results may have implications for both teachers and parents. "Adults and children can process language really well in quiet environments or with headphones on,” Levi explained. “But most of life, including classroom learning, is done in environments that aren't silent.”

Source: Levi SV. Talker familiarity and spoken word recognition in school-age children. Journal of Child Language. 2014.

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