Perceiving speech in context

Compensation for contextual variability at the level of acoustic cue encoding and categorization

Toscano, J. C. (2011). Doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa.


Several fundamental questions about speech perception concern how listeners understand spoken language despite considerable variability in speech sounds across different contexts (the problem of lack of invariance in speech). This contextual variability is caused by several factors, including differences between individual talkers’ voices, variation in speaking rate, and effects of coarticulatory context. A number of models have been proposed to describe how the speech system handles differences across contexts. Critically, these models make different predictions about (1) whether contextual variability is handled at the level of acoustic cue encoding or categorization, (2) whether it is driven by feedback from category-level processes or interactions between cues, and (3) whether listeners discard fine-grained acoustic information to compensate for contextual variability.

Separating the effects of cue- and category-level processing has been difficult because behavioral measures tap processes that occur well after initial cue encoding and are influenced by task demands and linguistic information. Recently, we have used the event-related brain potential (ERP) technique to examine cue encoding and online categorization. Specifically, we have looked at differences in the auditory N1 as a measure of acoustic cue encoding and the P3 as a measure of categorization. This allows us to examine multiple levels of processing during speech perception and can provide a useful tool for studying effects of contextual variability.

Here, I apply this approach to determine the point in processing at which context has an effect on speech perception and to examine whether acoustic cues are encoded continuously. Several types of contextual variability (talker gender, speaking rate, and coarticulation), as well as several acoustic cues (voice onset time, formant frequencies, and bandwidths), are examined in a series of experiments. The results suggest that (1) at early stages of speech processing, listeners encode continuous differences in acoustic cues, independent of phonological categories; (2) at post-perceptual stages, fine-grained acoustic information is preserved; and (3) there is preliminary evidence that listeners encode cues relative to context via feedback from categories. These results are discussed in relation to proposed models of speech perception and sources of contextual variability.

PDF of dissertation

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