Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Role of Attentional Abilities in Lexically Guided Perceptual Learning by Older Listeners

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

The Role of Attentional Abilities in Lexically Guided Perceptual Learning by Older Listeners

Article excerpt

Published online: 6 November 2014

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract This study investigates two variables that may modify lexically guided perceptual learning: individual hearing sensitivity and attentional abilities. Older Dutch listeners (aged 60+ years, varying from good hearing to mild-to-moderate high-frequency hearing loss) were tested on a lexically guided perceptual learning task using the contrast [f]-[s]. This contrast mainly differentiates between the two consonants in the higher frequencies, and thus is supposedly challenging for listeners with hearing loss. The analyses showed that older listeners generally engage in lexically guided perceptual learning. Hearing loss and selective attention did not modify perceptual learning in our participant sample, while attention-switching control did: listeners with poorer attention-switching control showed a stronger perceptual learning effect. We postulate that listeners with better attention-switching control may, in general, rely more strongly on bottom-up acoustic information compared to listeners with poorer attention-switching control, making them in turn less susceptible to lexically guided perceptual learning. Our results, moreover, clearly show that lexically guided perceptual learning is not lost when acoustic processing is less accurate.

Keywords Perceptual learning . Speech perception . Attention . Aging . Individual differences

Using the perceptual learning paradigm, ample evidence has been gathered by now showing that young listeners use lexical and phonotactic knowledge to quickly retune their phonemic categories in response to ambiguous pronunciations of sounds (e.g., Cutler, McQueen, Butterfield, & Norris, 2008; Norris, McQueen, & Cutler, 2003; see for an overview Samuel & Kraljic, 2009). Ultimately, listeners are listening for meaning, and they rather interpret words with ambiguous sounds as meaningful words than nonsense words. In this sense, the lexicon guides listeners' adjustment of phonemic categories when they encounter ambiguously produced sounds. The quick retuning of phonemic categories helps listeners to understand new speakers and unfamiliar accents as it allows them to easily comprehend other words produced by those speakers (Norris et al., 2003).

In a typical lexically guided perceptual learning experiment, listeners are first exposed to an ambiguous sound, e.g., an ambiguous sound between [f] and [s] ([f/s]) in a word (Norris et al., 2003). During this exposure phase, in our study a lexical decision task, the ambiguous sound [f/s] will be learned to be interpreted as /s/ if heard in words such as platypus (platypuf is a non-word in English), or as Iff in words such as giraffe (giras is a non-word in English). This learning generalizes to words that have not been presented earlier (McQueen, Cutler, & Norris, 2006), so that English young adults interpret the previously unheard word [na f/s], as nice or knife depending on their previous exposure to platypu[f/s] or gira [f/s], respectively (see also Davis et al., 2005 and HervaisAdelman et al., 2008, on the role of lexicality in perceptual learning of noise-vocoded speech). Recently, it has been shown that lexically guided perceptual learning is presumably present over a person's life span. McQueen, Tyler, and Cutler (2012) showed that 6- and 12-year olds are already capable of perceptual learning. Furthermore, Scharenborg and Janse (2013) found that older Dutch listeners (60+ years old) are also capable of perceptual learning and show a lexically guided perceptual learning effect comparable to that of younger listeners on a liquid contrast. The ability to adapt to new listening conditions thus remains present throughout a life span (see also, e.g., Adank & Janse, 2010; Golomb, Peelle, & Wingfield, 2007; Peelle & Wingfield, 2005). In the present paper, we further investigate the mechanisms that enable this category retuning process with a special focus on the hearing and attentional abilities of listeners. …

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