There is a substantial literature describing how infants become more sensitive to differences between native phonemes (sounds that are both present and meaningful in the input) and less sensitive to differences between non-native phonemes (sounds that are neither present nor meaningful in the input) over the course of development. Here, we review an emergent strand of literature that gives a more nuanced notion of the problem of sound category learning. This research documents infants’ discovery of phonological status, signaled by a decrease in sensitivity to sounds that map onto the same phonemic category vs. different phonemic categories. The former phones are present in the input, but their difference does not cue meaning distinctions because they are tied to one and the same phoneme. For example, the diphthong I in I’m should map to the same underlying category as the diphthong in I’d, despite the fact that the first vowel is nasal and the second oral. Because such pairs of sounds are processed differently than those than map onto different phonemes by adult speakers, the learner has to come to treat them differently as well. Interestingly, there is some evidence that infants’ sensitivity to dimensions that are allophonic in the ambient language declines as early as 11 months. We lay out behavioral research, corpora analyses, and computational work which sheds light on how infants achieve this feat at such a young age. Collectively, this work suggests that the computation of complementary distribution and the calculation of phonetic similarity operate in concert to guide infants toward a functional interpretation of sounds that are present in the input, yet not lexically contrastive. In addition to reviewing this literature, we discuss broader implications for other fundamental theoretical and empirical questions.
Keywords: infants, perception, phonology, phonemes, speech
Citation: Seidl A and Cristia A (2012) Infants’ learning of phonological status. Front. Psychology 3:448. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00448
Received: 30 July 2012; Accepted: 05 October 2012;
Published online: 02 November 2012.
Edited by:Claudia Männel, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Germany
Reviewed by:Judit Gervain, CNRS – Université Paris Descartes, France
Copyright: © 2012 Seidl and Cristia. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.
*Correspondence: Amanda Seidl, Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, Purdue University, 500 Oval Drive, West Lafayette, IN 47906, USA. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Alejandrina Cristia, Neurobiology of Language, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, 6525 XD Nijmegen, Netherlands. e-mail: email@example.com