Developmental Science

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Volume 22 Issue 1 (January 2019), Pages

The organization of words and environmental sounds in the second year: Behavioral and electrophysiological evidence

Abstract The majority of research examining early auditory‐semantic processing and organization is based on studies of meaningful relations between words and referents. However, a thorough investigation into the fundamental relation between acoustic signals and meaning requires an understanding of how meaning is associated with both lexical and non‐lexical sounds. Indeed, it is unknown how meaningful auditory information that is not lexical (e.g., environmental sounds) is processed and organized in the young brain. To capture the structure of semantic organization for words and environmental sounds, we record event‐related potentials as 20‐month‐olds view images of common nouns (e.g., dog) while hearing words or environmental sounds that match the picture (e.g., “dog” or barking), that are within‐category violations (e.g., “cat” or meowing), or that are between‐category violations (e.g., “pen” or scribbling). Results show both words and environmental sounds exhibit larger negative amplitudes to between‐category violations relative to matches. Unlike words, which show a greater negative response early and consistently to within‐category violations, such an effect for environmental sounds occurs late in semantic processing. Thus, as in adults, the young brain represents semantic relations between words and between environmental sounds, though it more readily differentiates semantically similar words compared to environmental sounds.

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