Stem similarity modulates infants' acquisition of phonological alternations

Cognition 209 (C):104573 (2021)
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Abstract

Phonemes have variant pronunciations depending on context. For instance, in American English, the [t] in pat [pæt] and the [d] in pad [pæd] are both realized with a tap [ɾ] when the –ing suffix is attached, [pæɾɪŋ]. We show that despite greater distributional and acoustic support for the [t]-tap alternation, 12-month-olds successfully relate taps to stems with a perceptually-similar final [d], not the dissimilar final-[t]. Thus, distributional learning of phonological alternations is constrained by infants' preference for the alternation of perceptually-similar segments. Further, the ability to relate variant surface forms emerges between 8- and 12-months. Our findings of biased learning provide further empirical support for a role for perceptual similarity in the acquisition of linguistically-relevant categories. We discuss the implications of our findings for phonological theory, language acquisition and models of the mental lexicon.

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