New Publication in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition

The different time course of phonotactic constraint learning in children and adults: Evidence from speech errors

Speech errors typically respect the speaker’s implicit knowledge of language-wide phonotactics (e.g., /ŋ/ cannot be a syllable onset in the English language). Previous work demonstrated that adults can learn novel experimentally-induced phonotactic constraints by producing syllable strings in which the allowable position of a phoneme depends on another phoneme within the sequence (e.g., /t/ can only be an onset if the medial vowel is /i/), but not earlier than the second day of training. Thus far, no work has been done with children. In the current 4-day experiment, a group of Dutch-speaking adults and nine-year-old children were asked to rapidly recite sequences of novel word-forms (e.g., kieng nief siet hiem) that were consistent with phonotactics of the spoken Dutch language. Within the procedure of the experiment, some consonants (i.e., /t/ and /k/) were restricted to onset or coda position depending on the medial vowel (i.e., /i/ or “ie” versus /øː/ or “eu”). Speech errors in adults revealed a learning effect for the novel constraints on the second day of learning, consistent with earlier findings. A post-hoc analysis at trial-level showed that learning was statistically reliable after an exposure of 120 sequence-trials (including a consolidation period). Children started learning the constraints already on the first day. More precisely, the effect appeared significantly after an exposure of 24 sequences. These findings indicate that children are rapid implicit learners of novel phonotactics, which bears important implications for theorizing about developmental sensitivities in language learning.

Smalle, E., Muylle, M., Szmalec, A., & Duyck, W. (in press). The different time course of phonotactic constraint learning in children and adults: Evidence from speech errors.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. PDF available here

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