Huettig, F., & McQueen, J. M.
(2009). AM radio noise changes the dynamics of spoken word recognition. Talk presented at 15th Annual Conference on Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing (AMLaP 2009). Barcelona, Spain. 2009-09-09.
Language processing does not take place in isolation from the sensory environment. Listeners are able to recognise spoken words in many different situations, ranging from carefully articulated and noise-free laboratory speech, through casual conversational speech in a quiet room, to degraded conversational speech in a busy train-station. For listeners to be able to recognize speech optimally in each of these listening situations, they must be able to adapt to
the constraints of each situation. We investigated this flexibility by comparing the dynamics of the spoken-word recognition process in clear speech and speech disrupted by radio noise. In Experiment 1, Dutch participants listened to clearly articulated spoken Dutch sentences which each included a critical word while their eye movements to four visual objects presented on a computer screen were measured. There were two critical conditions. In the first, the objects included a cohort competitor (e.g., parachute, “parachute”) with the same onset as the critical spoken word (e.g., paraplu, “umbrella”) and three unrelated distractors. In the second condition, a rhyme competitor (e.g., hamer, “hammer”) of the critical word (e.g., kamer, “room”) was present in the display, again with three distractors. To maximize competitor effects pictures of the critical words themselves were not present in the displays on the experimental trials (e.g.,there was no umbrella in the display with the 'paraplu' sentence) and a passive listening task was used (Huettig McQueen, 2007). Experiment 2 was identical to Experiment 1 except that phonemes in the spoken sentences were replaced with radio-signal noises (as in AM radio listening conditions). In each sentence, two,three or four phonemes were replaced with noises. The sentential position of these replacements was unpredictable, but the adjustments were always made to onset phonemes. The critical words (and the immediately surrounding words) were not changed. The question was whether listeners could learn that, under these circumstances, onset information is less reliable. We predicted that participants would look less at the cohort competitors (the initial match to the competitor is less good) and more at the rhyme competitors (the initial mismatch is less bad). We observed a significant experiment by competitor type interaction. In Experiment 1 participants fixated both kinds competitors more than unrelated distractors, but there were more and earlier looks to cohort competitors than to rhyme competitors (Allopenna et al., 1998). In Experiment 2 participants still fixated cohort competitors more than rhyme competitors but the early cohort effect was reduced and the rhyme effect was stronger and occurred earlier. These results suggest that AM radio noise changes the dynamics of spoken word recognition. The well-attested finding of stronger reliance on word onset overlap in speech recognition appears to be due in part to the use of clear speech in most experiments. When onset information becomes less reliable, listeners appear to depend on it less. A core feature of the speech-recognition system thus appears to be its flexibility. Listeners are able to adjust the perceptual weight they assign to different parts of incoming spoken language.