The effect of distributional information on children’s use of phonemic contrasts

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

Several recent experiments indicate that, when learning words, children are not as sensitive to phonemic differences (e.g., /d/ vs. /t/) as they are in discrimination tasks [Pater, J., Stager, C. L., & Werker, J. F. (2004). The perceptual acquisition of phonological contrasts. Language, 80, 384–402; Stager, C. L., & Werker, J. F. (1997). Infants listen for more phonetic detail in speech perception than in word-learning tasks.Nature, 388, 381–382]. In particular, 14-month-olds who can hear the difference between similar words such as “daw” and “taw” treat these labels as interchangeable when they refer to newly learned objects. We hypothesize that experience with the distribution of phonemes in their native language helps children use these phonemic distinctions in a word-learning task. Children receive distributional information when they experience different phonemes in different words. To test this hypothesis, we exposed children to two kinds of words: words in which phonemes occurred in very similar contexts, and words in which phonemes occurred in dissimilar contexts. Children who experienced phonemes in dissimilar contexts were more successful in using the contrast between the phonemes in a word-learning task.




Published In

Journal of Memory and Language, 56, 1, 16-34.