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Recognizing voices depends on language ability

Anne Trafton, MIT News Office  Jul 29,2011

Distinguishing between other people's voices may seem like a trivial task. However, if those people are speaking a language you don't understand, it becomes much harder. That's because you rely on individuals' differences in pronunciation to help identify them. If you don't understand the words they are saying, you don't pick up on those differences. Recognizing voices

That ability to process the relationship between sounds and their meanings, also known as phonology, is believed to be impaired in people with dyslexia. Therefore, neuroscientists at MIT theorized that people with dyslexia would find it much more difficult to identify speakers of their native language than non-dyslexic people. 

In a study appearing in Science on July 29, the researchers found just that. People with dyslexia had a much harder time recognizing voices than non-dyslexics. In fact, they fared just as poorly as they (and non-dyslexics) did when listening to speakers of a foreign language. 

The finding bolsters the theory that impaired phonology processing is a critical aspect of dyslexia, and sheds light on how human voice recognition differs from that of other animals, says John Gabrieli, MIT's Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Cognitive Neuroscience and senior author of the Science paper. 

"Recognizing one person from another, in humans, seems to be very dependent on human language capability," says Gabrieli, who is part of MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and also a principal investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.