Infant Perception of Non-Native Consonant Contrasts that Adults Assimilate in Different Ways

Best, Catherine C.; McRoberts, Gerald W.
June 2003
Language & Speech;Jun2003, Vol. 46 Issue 2/3, p183
Academic Journal
Numerous findings suggest that non-native speech perception undergoes dramatic changes before the infant's first birthday. Yet the nature and cause of these changes remain uncertain. We evaluated the predictions of several theoretical accounts of developmental change in infants' perception of non-native consonant contrasts. Experiment 1 assessed English-learning infants' discrimination of three isiZulu distinctions that American adults had categorized and discriminated quite differently, consistent with the Perceptual Assimilation Model (PAM: Best, 1995; Best et al., 1988). All involved a distinction employing a single articulatory organ, in this case the larynx. Consistent with all theoretical accounts, 6-8 month olds discriminated all contrasts. However, 10-12 month olds performed more poorly on each, consistent with the Articulatory-Organ-matching hypothesis (AO) derived from PAM and Articulatory Phonology (StuddertKennedy & Goldstein, 2003), specifically that older infants should show a decline for non-native distinctions involving a single articulatory organ. However, the results may also be open to other interpretations. The converse AO hypothesis, that non-native between organ distinctions will remain highly discriminable to older infants, was tested in Experiment 2, using a non-native Tigrinya distinction involving lips versus tongue tip. Both ages discriminated this between-organ contrast well, further supporting the AO hypothesis. Implications for theoretical accounts of infant speech perception are discussed.


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