Neural indicators of articulator-specific sensorimotor influences on infant speech perception


While there is increasing acceptance that even young infants detect correspondences between heard and seen speech, the common view is that oral-motor movements related to speech production cannot influence speech perception until infants begin to babble or speak. We investigated the extent of multimodal speech influences on auditory speech perception in prebabbling infants who have limited speech-like oral-motor repertoires. We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine how sensorimotor influences to the infant’s own articulatory movements impact auditory speech perception in 3-mo-old infants. In experiment 1, there were ERP discriminative responses to phonetic category changes across two phonetic contrasts (bilabial–dental /ba/-/ɗa/; dental–retroflex /ɗa/-/ɖa/) in a mismatch paradigm, indicating that infants auditorily discriminated both contrasts. In experiment 2, inhibiting infants’ own tongue-tip movements had a disruptive influence on the early ERP discriminative response to the /ɗa/-/ɖa/ contrast only. The same articulatory inhibition had contrasting effects on the perception of the /ba/-/ɗa/ contrast, which requires different articulators (the lips vs. the tongue) during production, and the /ɗa/-/ɖa/ contrast, whereby both phones require tongue-tip movement as a place of articulation. This articulatory distinction between the two contrasts plausibly accounts for the distinct influence of tongue-tip suppression on the neural responses to phonetic category change perception in definitively prebabbling, 3-mo-old, infants. The results showing a specificity in the relation between oral-motor inhibition and phonetic speech discrimination suggest a surprisingly early mapping between auditory and motor speech representation already in prebabbling infants.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences