Kelley L. Kaye
Univ. of Texas at Dallas, School of Human Develop. GR41, P.O. Box 830688, Richardson, TX 75083-0688
A previous study investigating the unit of speech perception in newborns [K. L. Kaye, J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 92, 2299(A) (1992)] yielded results suggesting that speech processing in newborns requires both the definition of the multidimensional perceptual space of the utterances in terms of small perceptual units, and the chunking of phenoemes into syllables for cognitive processing in memory. The present study focused on the perceptual process, investigating whether newborns are sensitive to the distinctive features of vowels. A vowel can be characterized by three opposed distinctive features. Using an operant (|S|) sucking procedure, one group of newborns received, over earphones, a presentation set with 0 distinctive feature variation, a second group with greater than 0 but less than 1 distinctive feature variation, and a third group with 2 distinctive features variation between the computer synthesized vowels in the set. Results indicated that responding is affected by the number of distinctive features required to define the vowel set, and together these studies indicate that newborns can segment speech in terms of syllables, phonemes, and distinctive features. Distinctive features are normally defined in articulatory terms, yet newborns do not have the appropriate articulatory equipment. The theoretical implications of this will be discussed.