Vowels, then consonants: Early bias switch in recognizing segmented word forms

Cognition. 2016 Oct;155:188-203. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.07.003. Epub 2016 Jul 16.


The division of labor hypothesis proposed by Nespor, Peña, and Mehler (2003) postulates that consonants are more important than vowels in lexical processing (when learning and recognizing words). This consonant bias (C-bias) is supported by many adult and toddler studies. However, some cross-linguistic variation has been found in toddlerhood, and various hypotheses have been proposed to account for the origin of the consonant bias, which make distinct predictions regarding its developmental trajectory during the first year of life. The present study evaluated these hypotheses by investigating the consonant bias in young French-learning infants, a language in which a consistent consonant bias is reported from 11months of age onward. Accordingly, in a series of word form segmentation experiments building on the fact that both 6- and 8-month-old French-learning infants can segment monosyllabic words, we investigated the relative impact of consonant and vowel mispronunciations on the recognition of segmented word forms at these two ages. Infants were familiarized with passages containing monosyllabic target words and then tested in different conditions all including consonant and/or vowel mispronunciations of the target words. Overall, our findings reveal a consonant bias at 8months, but an opposite vowel bias at 6months. These findings first establish that the consonant bias emerges between 6 and 8months of age in French-learning infants. Second, we discuss the factors that might explain such a developmental trajectory, highlighting the possible roles of pre-lexical and phonological acquisition.

Keywords: Consonant bias; French; Infancy; Phonology/lexicon interface; Word segmentation.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Attention
  • Child Language*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Phonetics*
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Speech Perception*