A familiar voice only helps children to process and understand words they already know well, not new words that aren't in their vocabularies, shows a new study.
The concept, known as the 'familiar talker advantage', comes into play in situations where it is difficult to hear. For example, in a loud or crowded room, adults can better understand those whose voices they already know.
The study by NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development explored whether the familiar talker advantage is found in children ages seven to 12. Forty-one children participated in the study, first listening to a series of words and repeating them to give researchers a baseline for how accurately each child identified words.
The children spent five days learning the voices of three German-English bilingual speakers. Half of the words used in the task were common words children would likely know and use (such as cat, book, and hug), and half were less familiar or even unknown (such as loathe, sage, and void).
The study used recordings of bilingual speakers to allow the researchers to test whether children acclimated to the speakers' accents and the children learned to identify the characters by their voices.
Finally, the children completed tasks in which they heard words spoken by six German-English bilingual speakers, and were asked to repeat the words. Three of the six speakers were the voices of the characters they had already learned.
The study revealed that children could more accurately repeat the words spoken by familiar voices, demonstrating that their spoken language processing improved with familiar speakers. However, this improvement was limited to the words children were likely to know, and the familiarity was not useful for words they didn't know.
The findings were published online in August in the Journal of Child Language.