Feedback Control and Speech Therapy Revisited

In August 2012 I posted a comment about MacDonald, E. N., Johnson, E. K., Forsyth, J., Plante, P., & Munhall, K. G. (2012). Children’s development of self-regulation in speech production. Current Biology, 22, 113-117. (see On Birds and Speech Therapy). In this paper the authors reported that toddlers did not compensate for perturbations of their own vowel formants and they concluded that toddlers “do not monitor their own voice when speaking in the same way as adults do”. I was skeptical of this claim since it is hard to imagine how children learn to talk at all if they do not have access to feedback control mechanisms. I suggested that perceptual explanations would make more sense and now there is published evidence that this is indeed the case, interestingly from a paper including Munhall as author, specifically, Mitsuya, T., Samson, F., Ménard, L., & Munhall, K. (2013). Language dependent vowel representation in speech production. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 133, 2993-3003.

The paper is fascinating because it shows that English and French talkers to not show the same compensation effect when participating in this experimental paradigm and when the vowels involve French rounded vowel categories (i.e., English talkers do not change their own speech to compensate to a perturbation that makes their own speech sound more like a French vowel whereas French speakers do). Furthermore, the amount of compensation that a talker produces is related to the talker’s underlying phonological representation of the vowel space, as represented in acoustic-phonetic terms. In this study, when the English listeners did not respond to the particular perturbation of their vowel formants that was used, the researchers did not conclude that English people are incapable of using feedback control mechanisms! Rather they concluded that “the function of error reduction itself appears to be language universal, while detection of error is language specific.” However, the use of feedback for error reduction is dependent upon the talker’s perception of the feedback which in turn is related to the listener’s phonological representations (previously this was not clear because the research participants are not always consciously aware of the way that the experimenters are manipulating their speech).

Obviously the same logic should be applied to the toddlers’ apparent failure to use feedback control in a similar experimental manipulation in which the toddler’s speech was changed from one English vowel to sound a little bit more like another English vowel. In fact, a perceptually motivated interpretation is favoured in Mitsuya et al.; when referring back to McDonald et al. they say “a stable phonemic representation is required for error detection and correction in speech, and sometime between 2 and 4 yr of age such a representation emerges and stabilizes.” This is not the interpretation that made the headline in Science Daily but it is the conclusion that makes more sense to me.

What are the implications for speech therapy? The research clearly supports my view that it is essential to ensure that your clients with speech sound errors have stable perceptual and phonological representations – this is a critical component of a treatment program aimed at establishing speech motor control and speech articulation accuracy As Mitsuya et al suggest, the acoustic target for speech is not just the phonetic category itself but the target category in relation to its neighbors. The treatment approach that I have always advocated is focused on phonemic perception: the important procedures include presenting the child with a large population of variable exemplars of the target category. These exemplars should identify the centre of the category, highlighting the important cues and the prototypical characteristics, while also allowing the child to explore the edges of the category so that the child can experience it in relation to similar but contrasting categories. Thus SAILS  presents the child with a task in which highly variable stimuli are judged to be the TARGET or NOT THE TARGET and some of the stimuli are rather ambiguous. SLPs do not always like the fact that not all of the stimuli are prototypical exemplars of the target category but in fact this amount of variability is important for the establishment of phonological representations. Mitsuya et al.’s paper is important because it reinforces the point that stable acoustic-phonetic representations for speech targets are essential for the use of feedback control in speech motor learning.

Leave a comment


  1. Thank you for sharing. This is very interesting. If you want check out my speech therapy blog at

  2. Fantastic article. Its clear you have researched every point clearly. The links you have provided are excellent. Thank you.

  1. Support for Speech Perception Interventions in Speech Therapy | Developmental Phonological Disorders

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