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Comparing lexically guided perceptual learning in younger and older listeners


Scharenborg,  Odette
Adaptive Listening, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

Janse,  Esther
Psychology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, Nijmegen, The Netherlands ;

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Scharenborg, O., & Janse, E. (2013). Comparing lexically guided perceptual learning in younger and older listeners. Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, 75, 525-536. doi:10.3758/s13414-013-0422-4.

Numerous studies have shown that younger adults engage in lexically guided perceptual learning in speech perception. Here, we investigated whether older listeners are also able to retune their phonetic category boundaries. More specifically, in this research we tried to answer two questions. First, do older adults show perceptual-learning effects of similar size to those of younger adults? Second, do differences in lexical behavior predict the strength of the perceptual-learning effect? An age group comparison revealed that older listeners do engage in lexically guided perceptual learning, but there were two age-related differences: Younger listeners had a stronger learning effect right after exposure than did older listeners, but the effect was more stable for older than for younger listeners. Moreover, a clear link was shown to exist between individuals’ lexical-decision performance during exposure and the magnitude of their perceptual-learning effects. A subsequent analysis on the results of the older participants revealed that, even within the older participant group, with increasing age the perceptual retuning effect became smaller but also more stable, mirroring the age group comparison results. These results could not be explained by differences in hearing loss. The age effect may be accounted for by decreased flexibility in the adjustment of phoneme categories or by age-related changes in the dynamics of spoken-word recognition, with older adults being more affected by competition from similar-sounding lexical competitors, resulting in less lexical guidance for perceptual retuning. In conclusion, our results clearly show that the speech perception system remains flexible over the life span.