The present study tested the effects of background speech and nonspeech noise on 5-year-old children’s working memory span.
Five-year-old typically developing children (range = 58.6 to 67.6 months; n = 94) completed a modified version of the Missing Scan Task, a missing-item working memory task, in quiet and in the presence of two types of background noise: male two-talker speech and speech-shaped noise. The two types of background noise had similar spectral composition and overall intensity characteristics but differed in whether they contained verbal content. In Experiments 1 and 2, children’s memory span (i.e., the largest set size of items children successfully recalled) was subjected to analyses of variance designed to look for an effect of listening condition (within-subjects factor: quiet, background noise) and an effect of background noise type (between-subjects factor: two-talker speech, speech-shaped noise).
In Experiment 1, children’s memory span declined in the presence of two-talker speech but not in the presence of speech-shaped noise. This result was replicated in Experiment 2 after accounting for a potential effect of proactive interference due to repeated administration of the Missing Scan Task.
Background speech, but not speech-shaped noise, disrupted working memory span in 5-year-old children. These results support the idea that background speech engages domain-general cognitive processes used during the recall of known objects in a way that speech-shaped noise does not.