Some Children Find It Harder to Understand What Strangers Are Saying

Newswise — New research by New York University Steinhardt Associate Professor Susannah Levi finds that children with poorer language skills are at a disadvantage when given tasks or being spoken to by strangers because they cannot, as easily as their peers, understand speech from people they do not know.

Levi’s research evaluated school-aged children and found that children with high language skills – a better ability to understand and process language – were able to understand speech well both by speakers they were familiar with and by speakers who had a similar accent. Children with lower language skills understood speech from familiar speakers well, but found it more challenging to understand speakers who they did not know.

“These findings suggest that children who have lower language skills are able to understand speech from familiar speakers, as would be the case with a teacher or parent, but may have a harder time with new speakers, such as a substitute teacher or when interacting with other people in their day to day interactions,” said Susannah Levi, NYU Steinhardt professor and the study’s lead author.

Levi previously published research showing that when school-aged children are familiar with someone’s voice or accent, they can more accurately and quickly process what a person is saying – a concept known as “familiar talker advantage.” The new research, published in the Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, by Levi and her co-authors examined how this advantage is impacted by a child’s language ability.

With the concept “familiar talker advantage,” child listeners naturally store information about what they hear and the way words sound when spoken from people they know. Each time a child is spoken to they go back to this stored information to process and understand words that are spoken to them. This new research demonstrates that children with poorer language skills have a more difficult time retrieving and processing this information.

The current study included children with a range of language abilities who completed spoken word recognition tasks in which they heard words mixed with background noise and had to indicate what word they heard. The tasks required children to identify words spoken by voices and accents they were familiar with as well as three unfamiliar voices. 

In addition to Levi, the study was co-authored by Daphna Harel, assistant professor of applied statistics at NYU Steinhardt and Richard G. Schwartz, a professor at the City University of New York.

The full research article is available at

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) – 1R03DC009851. Established in 1988, the NIDCD is mandated to conduct and support biomedical and behavioral research and research training in the normal and disordered processes of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech and language.


About the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development

Located in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development prepares students for careers in the arts, education, health, media and psychology. Since its founding in 1890, the Steinhardt School's mission has been to expand human capacity through public service, global collaboration, research, scholarship, and practice. To learn more about NYU Steinhardt, visit


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