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SHAPED Report Summary

Project ID: 659204
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SHAPED (SpeecH and Auditory Processing: Effects of Development)

Reporting period: 2015-11-02 to 2017-11-01

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

The project “SHAPED: SpeecH and Auditory Processing: Effects of Development” started in November 2015 for 24 months and was carried out by Dr. Laurianne Cabrera at University College London, UK. The overall aim of the project was to explore the interaction between the auditory capacity and speech processing during development.

The study of auditory perception is of fundamental importance for understanding speech perception and language acquisition. It is useful for understanding typical language acquisition but it also has great value for the understanding and rehabilitation of deafness, particularly in infancy and childhood. In Europe, about 1-3% of children (25,000 in the UK alone) suffer from hearing impairments. The study of speech perception exemplifies the fundamental links between auditory mechanisms and language acquisition.

The overall questions addressed during the fellowship were: (i) Does the experience with a language influence auditory processing? (ii) How does the interaction between audition and speech perception develop over age? (iii) How do hearing impairments affect this relationship?

Parents, teachers and clinicians were involved in the project, helping recruiting children with normal-hearing and children with hearing loss. The objectives and impacts of the research were shared with them during the project, and the overall results were communicated to the different participants via a newsletter.

These studies highlighted the impact of speech and hearing research on general health and language education. The experiments carried out in this project helped to understand why young children, and particularly children learning a second language, and children with hearing loss, show more difficulties when hearing speech in noisy conditions. In a near future, the outcomes of these studies will help to improve auditory rehabilitation for hearing-impaired children, and help to improve education policy at schools.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

Three experimental studies have been completed during the 24 months of the fellowship. These studies explored the interaction between auditory and speech processing by combining two approaches: developmental psycholinguistics studying the acquisition of a language, and psychoacoustics, describing the auditory mechanisms linked to the perception of speech sounds.

A first study explored in normal-hearing adults, whether the native language influences the auditory processing of the speech features. The auditory brain responses involved in the processing of speech were measured using electroencephalography (EEG) in three groups of listeners: French, Mandarin and English. Consonants from these three languages show subtle acoustic differences in timing and voicing (vibrations of the vocal cords). Preliminary analyses suggest that the EEG responses for the consonants differed according to their acoustic properties, and also that the native language of the listeners might influence these responses.

A second study used a series of child-friendly behavioural tasks to assess the interaction between auditory and speech processing during childhood. This experimental study looked at the relationship between children's hearing abilities to detect changes in sounds over time (amplitude modulations) and their perception of speech in noisy backgrounds (like in a noisy classroom). Time is a very important aspect in hearing, since almost all sounds vary over time. More importantly, temporal variations in speech sounds conveyed meaningful information. Three groups of children participated in the study: 5-to-6-year olds, 7-to-8-year-olds and 10-to-11-year olds. Half of the children were English monolinguals; the other half were bilinguals. Three child-friendly games were implemented on a touch-screen tablet. In all the games, three animals appeared on the screen and produced a sound one after the other. Participants were asked to find the “one-odd out”. The results showed that the ability to detect temporal variations in sounds is well developed by 5 years of age. The three groups of children showed exquisite ability to detect really small acoustic variations. However, the ability to focus on these temporal variations varied according to the duration of the sounds. When the sounds were really short, better detection was observed after 7 years of age. Then, the ability to memorise the temporal variations within long sounds takes even longer to develop, suggesting that the memory for this type of acoustic information improves over childhood. Finally, the ability to correctly identify consonants in noise was linked to children’s ability to hear these temporal variations within long sounds. In other words, children who showed better memory for the temporal variations tended to be better at hearing speech in noise. Interestingly, no difference was observed in any games between monolingual and bilingual children.

Finally, a third study assessed how hearing impairment affects the interaction between auditory mechanisms and language acquisition. Hearing-impaired people usually struggle to hear speech in challenging noisy conditions. A group of children with mild-to-moderate sensori-neural hearing loss, aged from 5 to 7 years, participated in the same series of behavioural games. Children were recruited with the help of parents’ support groups, local education authorities and clinicians in London. Results showed that hearing-impaired children show rather good abilities to detect changes in sounds over time. However, they show poor speech in noise perception compared to normal-hearing children. Regarding the relationship between the auditory tasks, the same trend as for the normal-hearing children was observed, suggesting that the ability to detect and use efficiently temporal information may contribute to a better understanding of speech in noise in this population as well.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The present project has significant impacts on two domains: Education and Handicap. The present project offers new outcomes in the field of speech perception and language development by exploring further the question: how do children learn a language. This project improves theoretical knowledge in the speech perception field. This project also includes a clinical aspect that has important implications concerning aided hearing-impaired children. Children suffering from hearing-impairments are nowadays sent to mainstream schools. However, those children are particularly affected by high levels of noise in classrooms thus, experience difficulties in accessing the curriculum, in particular learning language and reading. There is an urgent need to understand the development of the auditory mechanisms involved in the perception of speech-in-noise in order to 1) identify the factors related to poor perception of speech-in-noise and, 2) develop compensation strategies both for normal-hearing children that experience difficulties in noisy classroom, and for hearing-impaired children integrated in mainstream schools. This will provide a knowledge base to improve hearing devices, rehabilitation programs, and overall, language acquisition for hearing-impaired children.

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