No AccessJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing ResearchResearch Article8 Aug 2018

The Role of Lexical Status and Individual Differences for Perceptual Learning in Younger and Older Adults

    Purpose

    This study examined whether older adults remain perceptually flexible when presented with ambiguities in speech in the absence of lexically disambiguating information. We expected older adults to show less perceptual learning when top-down information was not available. We also investigated whether individual differences in executive function predicted perceptual learning in older and younger adults.

    Method

    Younger (n = 31) and older adults (n = 27) completed 2 perceptual learning tasks composed of a pretest, exposure, and posttest phase. Both learning tasks exposed participants to clear and ambiguous speech tokens, but crucially, the lexically guided learning task provided disambiguating lexical information whereas the distributional learning task did not. Participants also performed several cognitive tasks to investigate individual differences in working memory, vocabulary, and attention-switching control.

    Results

    We found that perceptual learning is maintained in older adults, but that learning may be stronger in contexts where top-down information is available. Receptive vocabulary scores predicted learning across both age groups and in both learning tasks.

    Conclusions

    Implicit learning is maintained with age across different learning conditions but remains stronger when lexically biasing information is available. We find that receptive vocabulary is relevant for learning in both types of learning tasks, suggesting the importance of vocabulary knowledge for adapting to ambiguities in speech.

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    Additional Resources