Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Listening (4 – 6 Months) – Increasing Responsiveness click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

In the four- to six-month period, infants are increasingly responsive to the sounds and voices of their environment, showing decided preferences for certain speaking patterns. However, the sound discrimination skills shown in the first three months are now being shaped and changed by the language of their home environment. Listening continues to develop within the framework of the interaction between the infant and caregiver. For more information on this framework, please refer to Interacting 4 – 6 Months.

Responsiveness to Voice

Infants as young as four months are able to localize to sounds (Owens, 2001). At five months, infants will respond to their name (Owens, 2001). In fact, the first word infants learn to recognize may be their own name (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). Infants have been found to demonstrate a preference for the sound of their names over other words with similar stress patterns (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). By four months, infants can also discriminate angry and friendly voices (Owens, 2001) and will respond differently to these voices (Sachs, 2005).

Listening Preferences

Infants, even as young as two days old, have been found to prefer the prosody characteristics of child-directed speech. Child-directed or infant-directed speech has higher, more variable pitch and exaggerated stress compared to adult-directed speech (Sachs, 2005). However, when researchers separated the prosody features and the positive affect of child-directed speech, six-month-old infants were found to prefer messages that included positive affect regardless of whether they followed the prosodic pattern of child-directed speech or not (Sachs, 2005). 

Sound Discrimination

Infants continue to be able to discriminate between sounds that vary in a single phonemic feature (i.e., voicing, place or manner; e.g., “ba” and “pa”) (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Dehart, Sroufe & Cooper, 2000; Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005; Owens, 2001). However, by as early as six months, language experience has begun to affect the ability of infants to discriminate vowels (Menn & Stoel-Gammon, 2005). The ability of six-month-old infants to identify vowel productions as similar has been found to vary depending on whether the vowel is found in their ambient language or not (Kuhl, Williams, Lacerda, Stevens & Lindblom, 1992). Researchers trained infants to turn their heads when sounds changed from prototype productions of the American English vowel /i/ (e.g., “fee”) to the Swedish vowel /y/. American infants were more accurate at identifying acoustic variants of /i/ as similar and less accurate at identifying acoustic variants of /y/. The reverse was found for Swedish infants.

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Research Review: Listening 4 - 6 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 – 2. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development