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A tonal-language benefit for pitch in normally-hearing and cochlear-implanted children


In tonal languages, voice pitch inflections change the meaning of words, such that the brain processes pitch not merely as an acoustic characterization of sound but as semantic information. In normally-hearing (NH) adults, this linguistic pressure on pitch appears to sharpen its neural encoding and can lead to perceptual benefits, depending on the task relevance, potentially generalizing outside of the speech domain. In children, however, linguistic systems are still malleable, meaning that their encoding of voice pitch information might not receive as much neural specialization but might generalize more easily to ecologically irrelevant pitch contours. This would seem particularly true for early-deafened children wearing a cochlear implant (CI), who must exhibit great adaptability to unfamiliar sounds as their sense of pitch is severely degraded. Here, we provide the first demonstration of a tonal language benefit in dynamic pitch sensitivity among NH children (using both a sweep discrimination and labelling task) which extends partially to children with CI (i.e., in the labelling task only). Strong age effects suggest that sensitivity to pitch contours reaches adult-like levels early in tonal language speakers (possibly before 6 years of age) but continues to develop in non-tonal language speakers well into the teenage years. Overall, we conclude that language-dependent neuroplasticity can enhance behavioral sensitivity to dynamic pitch, even in extreme cases of auditory degradation, but it is most easily observable early in life.

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