Word-level information influences phonetic learning in adults and infants

Naomi Feldman, Emily Myers, Katherine White, Thomas Griffiths, James Morgan

Infants begin to segment words from fluent speech during the same time period that they learn phonetic categories. Segmented words can provide a potentially useful cue for phonetic learning, yet accounts of phonetic category acquisition typically ignore the contexts in which sounds appear. We present two experiments to show that, contrary to the assumption that phonetic learning occurs in isolation, learners are sensitive to the words in which sounds appear and can use this information to constrain their interpretation of phonetic variability. Experiment 1 shows that adults use word-level information in a phonetic category learning task, assigning acoustically similar vowels to different categories more often when those sounds consistently appear in different words. Experiment 2 demonstrates that eight-month-old infants similarly pay attention to word-level information and that this information affects how they treat phonetic contrasts. These findings suggest that phonetic category learning is a rich, interactive process that takes advantage of many different types of cues that are present in the input.