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Cognition. 2009 Nov;113(2):234-43. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.08.010. Epub 2009 Sep 17.

Learning words' sounds before learning how words sound: 9-month-olds use distinct objects as cues to categorize speech information.

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Department of Psychology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4.


One of the central themes in the study of language acquisition is the gap between the linguistic knowledge that learners demonstrate, and the apparent inadequacy of linguistic input to support induction of this knowledge. One of the first linguistic abilities in the course of development to exemplify this problem is in speech perception: specifically, learning the sound system of one's native language. Native-language sound systems are defined by meaningful contrasts among words in a language, yet infants learn these sound patterns before any significant numbers of words are acquired. Previous approaches to this learning problem have suggested that infants can learn phonetic categories from statistical analysis of auditory input, without regard to word referents. Experimental evidence presented here suggests instead that young infants can use visual cues present in word-labeling situations to categorize phonetic information. In Experiment 1, 9-month-old English-learning infants failed to discriminate two non-native phonetic categories, establishing baseline performance in a perceptual discrimination task. In Experiment 2, these infants succeeded at discrimination after watching contrasting visual cues (i.e., videos of two novel objects) paired consistently with the two non-native phonetic categories. In Experiment 3, these infants failed at discrimination after watching the same visual cues, but paired inconsistently with the two phonetic categories. At an age before which memory of word labels is demonstrated in the laboratory, 9-month-old infants use contrastive pairings between objects and sounds to influence their phonetic sensitivity. Phonetic learning may have a more functional basis than previous statistical learning mechanisms assume: infants may use cross-modal associations inherent in social contexts to learn native-language phonetic categories.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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