Intersensory redundancy promotes infant detection of prosody in infant-directed speech

Lorraine E Bahrick, Myriah E McNew, Shannon M Pruden, Irina Castellanos
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2019 April 4, 183: 295-309
Prosody, or the intonation contours of speech, conveys emotion and intention to the listener and provides infants with an early basis for detecting meaning in speech. Infant-directed speech (IDS) is characterized by exaggerated prosody, slower tempo, and elongated pauses, all amodal properties detectable across the face and voice. Although speech is an audiovisual event, it has been studied primarily as a unimodal auditory stream without the synchronized dynamic face of the speaker. According to the intersensory redundancy hypothesis, redundancy across the senses facilitates perceptual learning of amodal information, including prosody. We predicted that young infants who are still learning to discriminate and categorize prosodic information would detect prosodic changes better in the presence of intersensory redundancy (i.e., synchronous audiovisual speech) than in its absence (i.e., unimodal auditory or asynchronous audiovisual speech). To test this hypothesis, 72 4-month-old infants were habituated to recordings of women reciting passages in IDS with prosody conveying either approval or prohibition and then were tested with recordings of a novel passage with either a change or no change in prosody. Infants who received bimodal synchronous stimulation exhibited significant visual recovery to the novel passage with a change in prosody, but not to a novel passage with no change in prosody. Infants in the unimodal auditory and bimodal asynchronous conditions did not exhibit visual recovery in either condition. Results support the hypothesis that intersensory redundancy facilitates detection and abstraction of invariant prosody across changes in linguistic content and likely serves as an early foundation for the detection of meaning in fluent speech.

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