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Lang Speech. 2003;46(Pt 2-3):115-54.

Phonetic diversity, statistical learning, and acquisition of phonology.

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  • 1Northwestern University, USA. jbp@northwestern.edu


In learning to perceive and produce speech, children master complex language-specific patterns. Daunting language-specific variation is found both in the segmental domain and in the domain of prosody and intonation. This article reviews the challenges posed by results in phonetic typology and sociolinguistics for the theory of language acquisition. It argues that categories are initiated bottom-up from statistical modes in use of the phonetic space, and sketches how exemplar theory can be used to model the updating of categories once they are initiated. It also argues that bottom-up initiation of categories is successful thanks to the perception-production loop operating in the speech community. The behavior of this loop means that the superficial statistical properties of speech available to the infant indirectly reflect the contrastiveness and discriminability of categories in the adult grammar. The article also argues that the developing system is refined using internal feedback from type statistics over the lexicon, once the lexicon is well-developed. The application of type statistics to a system initiated with surface statistics does not cause a fundamental reorganization of the system. Instead, it exploits confluences across levels of representation which characterize human language and make bootstrapping possible.

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