The effect of listening experience on the discrimination of /ba/ and /pa/ in Hebrew-learning and Arabic-learning infants

Osnat Segal*, Saja Hejli-Assi, Liat Kishon-Rabin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Infant speech discrimination can follow multiple trajectories depending on the language and the specific phonemes involved. Two understudied languages in terms of the development of infants' speech discrimination are Arabic and Hebrew. Purpose: The purpose of the present study was to examine the influence of listening experience with the native language on the discrimination of the voicing contrast /ba-pa/ in Arabic-learning infants whose native language includes only the phoneme /b/ and in Hebrew-learning infants whose native language includes both phonemes. Method: 128 Arabic-learning infants and Hebrew-learning infants, 4-to-6 and 10-to-12-month-old infants, were tested with the Visual Habituation Procedure. Results: The results showed that 4-to-6-month-old infants discriminated between /ba-pa/ regardless of their native language and order of presentation. However, only 10-to-12-month-old infants learning Hebrew retained this ability. 10-to-12-month-old infants learning Arabic did not discriminate the change from /ba/ to /pa/ but showed a tendency for discriminating the change from /pa/ to /ba/. Conclusions: This is the first study to report on the reduced discrimination of /ba-pa/ in older infants learning Arabic. Our findings are consistent with the notion that experience with the native language changes discrimination abilities and alters sensitivity to non-native contrasts, thus providing evidence for 'top-down' processing in young infants. The directional asymmetry in older infants learning Arabic can be explained by assimilation of the non-native consonant /p/ to the native Arabic category /b/ as predicted by current speech perception models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-99
Number of pages14
JournalInfant Behavior and Development
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2016


  • Arabic and Hebrew-learning infants
  • Discrimination of voicing contrast
  • Language development
  • Listening experience
  • Native and non-native contrasts
  • Speech perception in infants


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