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Developmental Effects in Children’s Ability to Benefit From F0 Differences Between Target and Masker Speech

Flaherty, Mary M.1; Buss, Emily2; Leibold, Lori J.3

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000673
Research Article

Objectives: The objectives of this study were to (1) evaluate the extent to which school-age children benefit from fundamental frequency (F0) differences between target words and competing two-talker speech, and (2) assess whether this benefit changes with age. It was predicted that while children would be more susceptible to speech-in-speech masking compared to adults, they would benefit from differences in F0 between target and masker speech. A second experiment was conducted to evaluate the relationship between frequency discrimination thresholds and the ability to benefit from target/masker differences in F0.

Design: Listeners were children (5 to 15 years) and adults (20 to 36 years) with normal hearing. In the first experiment, speech reception thresholds (SRTs) for disyllabic words were measured in a continuous, 60-dB SPL two-talker speech masker. The same male talker produced both the target and masker speech (average F0 = 120 Hz). The level of the target words was adaptively varied to estimate the level associated with 71% correct identification. The procedure was a four-alternative forced-choice with a picture-pointing response. Target words either had the same mean F0 as the masker or it was shifted up by 3, 6, or 9 semitones. To determine the benefit of target/masker F0 separation on word recognition, masking release was computed by subtracting thresholds in each shifted-F0 condition from the threshold in the unshifted-F0 condition. In the second experiment, frequency discrimination thresholds were collected for a subset of listeners to determine whether sensitivity to F0 differences would be predictive of SRTs. The standard was the syllable /ba/ with an F0 of 250 Hz; the target stimuli had a higher F0. Discrimination thresholds were measured using a three-alternative, three-interval forced choice procedure.

Results: Younger children (5 to 12 years) had significantly poorer SRTs than older children (13 to 15 years) and adults in the unshifted-F0 condition. The benefit of F0 separations generally increased with increasing child age and magnitude of target/masker F0 separation. For 5- to 7-year-olds, there was a small benefit of F0 separation in the 9-semitone condition only. For 8- to 12-year-olds, there was a benefit from both 6- and 9-semitone separations, but to a lesser degree than what was observed for older children (13 to 15 years) and adults, who showed a substantial benefit in the 6- and 9-semitone conditions. Examination of individual data found that children younger than 7 years of age did not benefit from any of the F0 separations tested. Results for the frequency discrimination task indicated that, while there was a trend for improved thresholds with increasing age, these thresholds were not predictive of the ability to use F0 differences in the speech-in-speech recognition task after controlling for age.

Conclusions: The overall pattern of results suggests that children’s ability to benefit from F0 differences in speech-in-speech recognition follows a prolonged developmental trajectory. Younger children are less able to capitalize on differences in F0 between target and masker speech. The extent to which individual children benefitted from target/masker F0 differences was not associated with their frequency discrimination thresholds.

1Department of Speech and Hearing Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, USA

2Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

3Center for Hearing Research, Boys Town National Research Hospital, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Received August 10, 2017; accepted August 29, 2018.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Address for correspondence: Mary M. Flaherty, Department of Speech and Hearing Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 901 South Sixth Street, Champaign, IL 61820, USA. E-mail:

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