Learning classes of sounds in infancy

Cristia, A., Seidl, A., & Gerken, L. (2011). Learning classes of sounds in infancy. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 17, 9.
Adults' phonotactic learning is affected by perceptual biases. One such bias concerns learning of constraints affecting groups of sounds: all else being equal, learning constraints affecting a natural class (a set of sounds sharing some phonetic characteristic) is easier than learning a constraint affecting an arbitrary set of sounds. This perceptual bias could be a given, for example, the result of innately guided learning; alternatively, it could be due to human learners’ experience with sounds. Using artificial grammars, we investigated whether such a bias arises in development, or whether it is present as soon as infants can learn phonotactics. Seven-month-old English-learning infants fail to generalize a phonotactic pattern involving fricatives and nasals, which does not form a coherent phonetic group, but succeed with the natural class of oral and nasal stops. In this paper, we report an experiment that explored whether those results also follow in a cohort of 4-month-olds. Unlike the older infants, 4-month-olds were able to generalize both groups, suggesting that the perceptual bias that makes phonotactic constraints on natural classes easier to learn is likely the effect of experience.
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