Cochlear implants (CIs) are remarkable in allowing individuals with severe to profound hearing loss to perceive speech. Despite these gains in speech understanding, however, CI users often struggle to perceive elements such as vocal emotion and prosody, as CIs are unable to transmit the spectro-temporal detail needed to decode affective cues. This issue becomes particularly important for children with CIs, but little is known about their emotional development. In a previous study, pediatric CI users showed deficits in voice emotion recognition with child-directed stimuli featuring exaggerated prosody. However, the large intersubject variability and differential developmental trajectory known in this population incited us to question the extent to which exaggerated prosody would facilitate performance in this task. Thus, the authors revisited the question with both adult-directed and child-directed stimuli.
Vocal emotion recognition was measured using both child-directed (CDS) and adult-directed (ADS) speech conditions. Pediatric CI users, aged 7–19 years old, with no cognitive or visual impairments and who communicated through oral communication with English as the primary language participated in the experiment (n = 27). Stimuli comprised 12 sentences selected from the HINT database. The sentences were spoken by male and female talkers in a CDS or ADS manner, in each of the five target emotions (happy, sad, neutral, scared, and angry). The chosen sentences were semantically emotion-neutral. Percent correct emotion recognition scores were analyzed for each participant in each condition (CDS vs. ADS). Children also completed cognitive tests of nonverbal IQ and receptive vocabulary, while parents completed questionnaires of CI and hearing history. It was predicted that the reduced prosodic variations found in the ADS condition would result in lower vocal emotion recognition scores compared with the CDS condition. Moreover, it was hypothesized that cognitive factors, perceptual sensitivity to complex pitch changes, and elements of each child’s hearing history may serve as predictors of performance on vocal emotion recognition.
Consistent with our hypothesis, pediatric CI users scored higher on CDS compared with ADS speech stimuli, suggesting that speaking with an exaggerated prosody—akin to “motherese”—may be a viable way to convey emotional content. Significant talker effects were also observed in that higher scores were found for the female talker for both conditions. Multiple regression analysis showed that nonverbal IQ was a significant predictor of CDS emotion recognition scores while Years using CI was a significant predictor of ADS scores. Confusion matrix analyses revealed a dependence of results on specific emotions; for the CDS condition’s female talker, participants had high sensitivity (d’ scores) to happy and low sensitivity to the neutral sentences while for the ADS condition, low sensitivity was found for the scared sentences.
In general, participants had higher vocal emotion recognition to the CDS condition which also had more variability in pitch and intensity and thus more exaggerated prosody, in comparison to the ADS condition. Results suggest that pediatric CI users struggle with vocal emotion perception in general, particularly to adult-directed speech. The authors believe these results have broad implications for understanding how CI users perceive emotions both from an auditory communication standpoint and a socio-developmental perspective.