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Human voice recognition and language ability

June 3, 2012

A study published in Science (Perrachione, Del Tufo, & Gabrieli, 2011) looked at the ability of people with and without dyslexia to recognize voices speaking in the participants’ native language (English) versus a language they didn’t know (Mandarin Chinese). The researchers were attempting to test whether dyslexia is caused in part by difficulty with phonological processing (the ability to understand the individual sounds of language), which would then interferes with reading.  To test this, they had people listen to five speakers and later try to match the voices with the faces.

Their results showed that English speakers with dyslexia had a more difficult time identifying voices of English speakers (about 50% accuracy compared to about 70% for non-dyslexics).  However, both dyslexics and non-dyslexics performed about the same identifying the voices of Chinese speakers (~50%).  This means that non-dyslexics had an advantage over dyslexics in identifying voices in their native language, but both groups performed about the same in the unfamiliar language.   (The authors note that non-dyslexic native Chinese speakers displayed the same advantage in identifying the voice of someone speaking their native language.)

Implications for L2 Listening

The authors point out the link between voice recognition ability and “the ability to compute the differences between incidental phonetics of a specific vocalization [e.g. the way a word is actually pronounced] and the abstract phonological representation of the words that vocalization contains [i.e. how the sound of the word is stored in the brain].” In other words, the ability to recognize a voice is connected to the ability to recognize the variations in how individuals pronounce specific sounds.  To understand this, think of some obvious variations in how people speaker: one person may pronounce vowel sounds with more of a nasal sound, while another person my lisp slightly. In fact, each speaker pronounces speech sounds in a slightly different way, and while we may not consciously recognize this difference, it is what allows us to recognize the voices of different people.

The study showed that speakers who are unfamiliar with a language are not as good at identifying voices because their ‘abstract phonological representation’ of the sounds in the language is not well-developed. Dyslexic subjects also had a harder time identifying voices because their “phonological representations are compromised” — in both cases, the subjects could not recognize the small differences that help us identify in individual voice.

This is important to keep in mind for language learning because when learning a new language, it takes time to develop the “abstract phonological representation of words” in the learner’s mind.  This means that learners may not hear a word correctly if it doesn’t match the representation they have in their mind — not just on the word level of knowing how different words sound, but also on the phonological level of hearing the right sounds.  Many pronunciation problems are actually perception problems when someone doesn’t hear a phoneme correctly, perhaps because that sound doesn’t exist in the learner’s native language, or it is an allophone for another sound.

Perrachione, T. K., Del Tufo, S. N., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2011). Human Voice Recognition Depends on Language Ability. Science333(6042), 595–595. doi:10.1126/science.1207327

From → Perception

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