In fact, from a purely processing standpoint, this may add significant demands. However, specific types of variability may also play a role in forming appropriate phonetic categories. Under both prototype (Kuhl, 1991; Miller, 1997, 2001) and exemplar (Goldinger, 1998; Pierrehumbert, 2003) theories of speech perception, variability is essential to defining the limits of a category (e.g., what tokens are not a /b/). Developmentally, it is important for the learner to hear variable exemplars in order to delineate the acoustic space encompassed by a phonological category and words.
Moreover, as numerous authors have pointed out (Swingley & Aslin, 2002; Yoshida et al., 2009), the switch task relies on infants’ abilities to both identify a selleck kinase inhibitor word and identify that a given auditory stimulus is not an exemplar of a lexical category. If variability is essential to defining the edge of a category, a lack of variability could be particularly
problematic in the switch task. The multitalker input used in Rost and McMurray (2009) contained multiple sources of variability, both within and between speakers. This included variation in prosodic patterning, fundamental frequency, vowel quality, and voice timbre. These factors do not distinguish /buk/ from /puk/, nor do they serve as cues for voicing more broadly. However, these tokens also contained variation in selleck chemicals Voice Onset Time (VOT; the continuous cue that distinguishes voicing, hence the two words to be learned) that is constrastive for the voicing feature distinguishing /buk/ and /puk/. A number of studies have examined the role of such variation in the formation of speech categories. Phonetic investigations of cues like VOT reveal statistical distributions that maintain the Immune system separability of /b/ and /p/, but have significant within-category variation (Allen & Miller, 1999; Lisker & Abramson, 1964). Moreover, Maye, Werker, and Gerken (2002) (see also Maye, Weiss, & Aslin, 2008; Teinonen, Aslin, Alku, & Csibra, 2008) have demonstrated that infants are sensitive to
these distributions and may use them to learn speech categories. In these studies, infants were exposed to a set of words in which the VOT statistically distributed into one or two clusters, after which, infants’ patterns of discrimination mirrored the number of clusters in the input. Thus, variation in contrastive cues may play a role in category learning (see McMurray, Aslin, & Toscano, 2009) by providing an estimate of the width of the category or its edge. In fact, Rost and McMurray’s (2009) stimuli contained variability in VOT that mirrored the statistical distributions of English. Figure 1a shows the distribution of tokens for VOT found by Allen and Miller (1999) along with the distributions in the stimulus set of Rost and McMurray (2009).