Emotional Speech Processing in 3- to 12-Month-Old Infants: Influences of Emotion Categories and Acoustic Parameters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: The aim of this study was to investigate infants’ listening preference for emotional prosodies in spoken words and identify their acoustic correlates. Method: Forty-six 3-to-12-month-old infants (Mage = 7.6 months) completed a central fixation (or look-to-listen) paradigm in which four emotional prosodies (happy, sad, angry, and neutral) were presented. Infants’ looking time to the string of words was recorded as a proxy of their listening attention. Five acoustic variables—mean fundamental frequency (F0), word duration, intensity variation, harmonics-to-noise ratio (HNR), and spectral centroid—were also analyzed to account for infants’ attentiveness to each emotion. Results: Infants generally preferred affective over neutral prosody, with more listening attention to the happy and sad voices. Happy sounds with breathy voice quality (low HNR) and less brightness (low spectral centroid) maintained infants’ attention more. Sad speech with shorter word duration (i.e., faster speech rate), less breathiness, and more brightness gained infants’ attention more than happy speech did. Infants listened less to angry than to happy and sad prosodies, and none of the acoustic variables were associated with infants’ listening interests in angry voices. Neutral words with a lower F0 attracted infants’ attention more than those with a higher F0. Neither age nor sex effects were observed. Conclusions: This study provides evidence for infants’ sensitivity to the prosodic patterns for the basic emotion categories in spoken words and how the acoustic properties of emotional speech may guide their attention. The results point to the need to study the interplay between early socioaffective and language development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)487-500
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of speech, language, and hearing research : JSLHR
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 9 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota’s Graduate Research Partnering Project and the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, University of Minnesota’s Bryng Bryngelson Fund. We would like to thank Megha Sundara for technical support in setting up the infant laboratory.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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