Statistical phonetic learning in infants: facilitation and feature generalization


Address for correspondence: Jessica Maye, Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, Northwestern University, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208-2952, USA; e-mail:


Over the course of the first year of life, infants develop from being generalized listeners, capable of discriminating both native and non-native speech contrasts, into specialized listeners whose discrimination patterns closely reflect the phonetic system of the native language(s). Recent work by Maye, Werker and Gerken (2002) has proposed a statistical account for this phenomenon, showing that infants may lose the ability to discriminate some foreign language contrasts on the basis of their sensitivity to the statistical distribution of sounds in the input language. In this paper we examine the process of enhancement in infant speech perception, whereby initially difficult phonetic contrasts become better discriminated when they define two categories that serve a functional role in the native language. In particular, we demonstrate that exposure to a bimodal statistical distribution in 8-month-old infants’ phonetic input can lead to increased discrimination of difficult contrasts. In addition, this exposure also facilitates discrimination of an unfamiliar contrast sharing the same phonetic feature as the contrast presented during familiarization, suggesting that infants extract acoustic/phonetic information that is invariant across an abstract featural representation.