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Phonetic processing during the acquisition of new words in 3-to-6-year-old French-speaking deaf children with cochlear implants

The present study explores phonetic processing in deaf children with cochlear implants (CIs) when they have to learn phonetically similar words. Forty-six 34-to-78-month-old French-speaking deaf children with CIs were tested on 16 different trials. In each trial, they were first trained with two word-object pairings, and then a third object was presented and labeled with one of the familiar words. Children were asked to match one of the previously labeled objects with the third (same-labeled) object. Each pair of words contrasted on either the initial consonant or the first vowel by one or several phonetic features. The results show that deaf children with CIs are able to establish a new referential link between a word and an object. However, their performance is lower than that previously observed in normal-hearing children (NH). In such a situation, they process contrasts involving several phonetic features correctly, but show difficulties with minimal contrasts. The ability to recruit fine phonetic sensitivity during word learning appears to be influenced mainly by duration of implant use, with an overall increase of performance during the 3 years after implantation. There was no chronological age effect, nor age at implantation effect on the quality of processing. Difficulty with minimal contrasts and the absence of any age at implantation effects in this age range are discussed in light of recent studies on lexical development.



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