Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Infant speech perception project

Once again, Helena and I headed out to McGill to participate in yet another language study.

I must admit, I didn't fully understand yesterday's experiment (I arrived in a cold, public-transit-riding–induced haze). This time, Helena listened to recordings of English "da" and French "da." That's where I get lost. "Da" being fairly meaningless in both languages, I assume the question is whether Helena can recognize that the syllable was pronounced by an English speaker or a French speaker, by the intonation, the "quality" of the consonant and of the vowel.

Again, I listened to jazzy tunes over some heavy-duty headphones so as not to colour Helena's responses.

The attention-getting mechanism for this study was a little different than for previous studies. Just one red light was flashed in front of us, but a monitor projecting a checkerboard pattern also faced us and periodically flashed on and off. I guess since the subjects for this study are about a year old and a little more sophisticated, so must be the methods to gauge them.

For her efforts, Helena received a T-shirt proclaiming her an Official Consultant on the Infant Speech Perception Project (School of Communication Sciences and Disorders).

Previously, we participated in a study of vowel contrasts — the difference between "heed" and "hid" as judged by Helena's reaction to them being piped in at the left and at the right. Since Helena was well-behaved back, the experimenters asked if they could take data for a music study another group was working on. Vocal versus instrumental music. They played a Chinese folk song. Apparently there's a clear gender distinction — girls prefer the sound of a singing voice. So on June 24, Helena received her first degree, "Honorary Infant Scientist Degree" according to the official-looking certificate — MIT, here we come.

On August 12, Helena was observed as part of a study to determine whether infants of a certain age can recognize unnatural sentence pauses. Her T-shirt identifies her as a Research Assistant to the Bilingual Acquisition Lab (Department of Psychology).

Human baby, lab rat, trained monkey, it's all the same. (Hey, it's not like we locked her up in the attic to see if she would develop language on her own.) Heck, it's all for science!

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