Top-down versus bottom-up theories of phonological acquisition: A big data approach

Bergmann, C., Tsuji, S., & Cristia, A. (2017). Top-down versus bottom-up theories of phonological acquisition: A big data approach. In Proceedings of Interspeech 2017 (pp. 2103-2107).
Recent work has made available a number of standardized meta- analyses bearing on various aspects of infant language processing. We utilize data from two such meta-analyses (discrimination of vowel contrasts and word segmentation, i.e., recognition of word forms extracted from running speech) to assess whether the published body of empirical evidence supports a bottom-up versus a top-down theory of early phonological development by leveling the power of results from thousands of infants. We predicted that if infants can rely purely on auditory experience to develop their phonological categories, then vowel discrimination and word segmentation should develop in parallel, with the latter being potentially lagged compared to the former. However, if infants crucially rely on word form information to build their phonological categories, then development at the word level must precede the acquisition of native sound categories. Our results do not support the latter prediction. We discuss potential implications and limitations, most saliently that word forms are only one top-down level proposed to affect phonological development, with other proposals suggesting that top-down pressures emerge from lexical (i.e., word-meaning pairs) development. This investigation also highlights general procedures by which standardized meta-analyses may be reused to answer theoretical questions spanning across phenomena.
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