Project Report

In an increasingly globalized world, accent and dialect normalization is becoming more and more necessary. Understanding how this develops is consequently of great importance, and is an area that has been understudied. The current project expands on the topic of variability of linguistic input, by looking at Singaporean children (a population with whom little work in language acquisition has been carried out). Beyond the immediate research goals, this project serves as an example of how productive research can be performed with diverse populations. Research in infant speech perception has mostly focused on infants learning English in the United States. The current study promotes cross-cultural interdisciplinary research by comparing data collected from a group of children in Singapore, and comparing their performance on a language comprehension task to that of a group of children of the same age in the United States. Most young language learners encounter exposure to accent and dialectal variants of the native language early in life. This variation in exposure is the result of existing and expanding multicultural contacts (e.g. accessibility to foreign media) and multilingualism, and is relevant for both monolingual and bilingual children across cultures. Given the vast amounts of information included in the speech signals that children hear on a daily basis, identifying the exact components that are necessary for language comprehension and acquisition is a task that infants must succeed at early on in life. While we know that generalization is a difficult problem in general (i.e., the notion that when two speakers say the word "car" it refers to the same object, even if the two speakers sound different), little is known about the effects that regionally-driven variations in the speech signal might have on young children’s word-recognition. Languages and dialects have been categorized based on the rhythmical patterns that are used by its speakers, and differentiating between these categories is something that infants learn particularly early (Nazzi et al., 1998). Singapore English is unique, in that it differs in rhythmic class from more widely studied dialects of English (e.g., American, British, & Australian English). As a result of an international collaboration between labs in two different countries, the current study examined the extent to which children’s language comprehension is influenced by variations in the rhythm of their language, and whether children’s previous linguistic exposure influences their ability to generalize across dialects. Data collected with 20-month-olds in Singapore and in the United States, suggest that young children’s accuracy when identifying familiar words (e.g., balloon, apple, flower) is consistently greater when the words are included in a sentence produced by a speaker of their own dialect. Nevertheless, children in both groups performed significantly above chance when presented with speech in the non-native dialect.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Office of International and Integrative Activities (IIA)
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Carter Kimsey
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Morini Giovanna
United States
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