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Speaker-controlled Variability in Children's Speech in Interaction

A research project funded by the ESRC

Administrative Details
Grant Period: June 2011 - May 2014
Grant Award: £307,179
 Grant Reference Number:
Investigator: Valerie Hazan
Research Associate:

Michele Pettinato

Outi Tuomainen(from 1 November 2013)

How do children and teenagers adapt their speech so that they can maintain good communication in challenging listening environments? Are they able to modify their speech specifically to counteract the effects of different types of noise or interference? Are there differences between how adults and children/young people achieve this? What does this ability depend on, and how does it develop? These are the questions we will be pursuing with this research project.

In our previous research, we found that adults altered the acoustic-phonetic characteristics of their speech in different ways depending on the kind of noise or interference they were trying to overcome. Interestingly, they were able to do this even if they themselves did not experience the interference, but instead had to communicate with a listener who was hearing their voice through noise.

Research has shown that the fine adjustments we make to our speech are an important aspect of communication and guide the listener in recognising speech (e.g., Local, 2003; Hawkins, 2003, in press). Learning to adapt your voice to different conditions is therefore an integral part of speech development. Moreover, it is important to examine this ability in children and adolescents because most of their daily communications, both at school and at home, take place in noisy environments. In spite of this, few studies have examined how children adjust their speech in response to noise.

There is some evidence that children may find this more challenging than adults: they have been found to have more difficulties with understanding speech in noise (Elliot, 1977, Johnson, 2000), and until about fourteen years of age, the way they produce speech is more variable than adults (Farantouri et al, 2008, Zharcova et al, 2008), which may affect their ability to increase the clarity of their speech.

For these reasons, ‘Speaker-controlled variability in children's speech in interaction’ represents a timely research project which addresses a gap in our knowledge. It will allow us to deepen our understanding of how children and young people plan and understand speech, what level of detail is necessary for this and the manner in which this develops through childhood.

The research findings will be relevant for communication with children with a language or a hearing impairment, educational practice and classroom management as well as the development of hearing technologies.