In Brief

When people learn words from another person, they store in memory the speaker's voice features, which they later use to recall the words, according to research appearing in APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (Vol. 31, No. 1).

In the study, psychologist Winston Goh, PhD, of the National University of Singapore, explored whether people encode in memory both the learned word and the speaker's voice from the specific instance they heard it, if simple familiarity with a speaking voice helps recollection or if both tactics played a part.

To find out, Goh had 88 native English-speaking students from Indiana University and the National University of Singapore listen to five male voices speak a list of 90 monosyllabic words.

Participants then completed math questions for three minutes to distract them from short-term recollection of the words. Afterward, Goh gave participants a test in which participants heard the same 90 words as before, plus 90 new words, and had to determine which were repeats. Participants heard three types of voices speak the words. "Same" voices were the same people speaking the same words as in the first trial. "Different" voices were the same people speaking different words than they did before. "New" voices were those participants had never heard.

Goh found participants better identified previously heard words from same voices than from new voices. In addition, participants also tended to think that they recognized words spoken by previously heard voices more than those by new ones. Even though some previously heard voices spoke different words in the test condition than they did initially, they seemed familiar to participants, Goh explains.

The results support the idea that voice familiarity plays a part in recalling words. They also indicate people may excel at learning a language when hearing it from many different voices rather than a single, consistent voice, Goh says, because they would better understand different accents and inflections.

"Generalizing words to new instances is much easier when you have many rich examples of what you're trying to learn," Goh says.