Listening through voices: Infant statistical word segmentation across multiple speakers

Katharine Graf Estes, Casey Lew-Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


To learn from their environments, infants must detect structure behind pervasive variation. This presents substantial and largely untested learning challenges in early language acquisition. The current experiments address whether infants can use statistical learning mechanisms to segment words when the speech signal contains acoustic variation produced by changes in speakers' voices. In Experiment 1, 8- and 10-month-old infants listened to a continuous stream of novel words produced by 8 different female voices. The voices alternated frequently, potentially interrupting infants' detection of transitional probability patterns that mark word boundaries. Infants at both ages successfully segmented words in the speech stream. In Experiment 2, 8-month-olds demonstrated the ability to generalize their learning about the speech stream when presented with a new, acoustically distinct voice during testing. However, in Experiments 3 and 4, when the same speech stream was produced by only 2 female voices, infants failed to segment the words. The results of these experiments indicate that low acoustic variation may interfere with infants' efficiency in segmenting words from continuous speech, but that infants successfully use statistical cues to segment words in conditions of high acoustic variation. These findings contribute to our understanding of whether statistical learning mechanisms can scale up to meet the demands of natural learning environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1517-1528
Number of pages12
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


  • Language acquisition
  • Statistical learning
  • Variation
  • Word segmentation


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