Consonants and vowels differ acoustically and articulatorily, but also functionally: Consonants are more relevant for lexical processing, and vowels for prosodic/syntactic processing. These functional biases could be powerful bootstrapping mechanisms for learning language, but their developmental origin remains unclear. The relative importance of consonants and vowels at the onset of lexical acquisition was assessed in French-learning 5-month-olds by testing sensitivity to minimal phonetic changes in their own name. Infants' reactions to mispronunciations revealed sensitivity to vowel but not consonant changes. Vowels were also more salient (on duration and intensity) but less distinct (on spectrally based measures) than consonants. Lastly, vowel (but not consonant) mispronunciation detection was modulated by acoustic factors, in particular spectrally based distance. These results establish that consonant changes do not affect lexical recognition at 5 months, while vowel changes do; the consonant bias observed later in development does not emerge until after 5 months through additional language exposure.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.