Consonant/vowel Asymmetry in Early Word Form Recognition

J Exp Child Psychol. 2015 Mar;131:135-48. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.11.011. Epub 2014 Dec 26.


Previous preferential listening studies suggest that 11-month-olds' early word representations are phonologically detailed, such that minor phonetic variations (i.e., mispronunciations) impair recognition. However, these studies focused on infants' sensitivity to mispronunciations (or omissions) of consonants, which have been proposed to be more important for lexical identity than vowels. Even though a lexically related consonant advantage has been consistently found in French from 14 months of age onward, little is known about its developmental onset. The current study asked whether French-learning 11-month-olds exhibit a consonant-vowel asymmetry when recognizing familiar words, which would be reflected in vowel mispronunciations being more tolerated than consonant mispronunciations. In a baseline experiment (Experiment 1), infants preferred listening to familiar words over nonwords, confirming that at 11 months of age infants show a familiarity effect rather than a novelty effect. In Experiment 2, which was constructed using the familiar words of Experiment 1, infants preferred listening to one-feature vowel mispronunciations over one-feature consonant mispronunciations. Given the familiarity preference established in Experiment 1, this pattern of results suggests that recognition of early familiar words is more dependent on their consonants than on their vowels. This adds another piece of evidence that, at least in French, consonants already have a privileged role in lexical processing by 11 months of age, as claimed by Nespor, Peña, and Mehler (2003).

Keywords: Consonant bias; Early language acquisition; Infancy; Phonetic specificity; Speech perception; Word recognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Phonetics*
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Speech Perception*