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Abstract

During the first year of life, infants begin to have difficulties perceiving non-native vowel and consonant contrasts, thus adapting their perception to the phonetic categories of the target language. In this paper, we examine the perception of a non-segmental feature, i.e. stress. Previous research with adults has shown that speakers of French (a language with fixed stress) have great difficulties in perceiving stress contrasts ( Dupoux, Pallier, Sebastián & Mehler, 1997 ), whereas speakers of Spanish (a language with lexically contrastive stress) perceive these contrasts as accurately as segmental contrasts. We show that language-specific differences in the perception of stress likewise arise during the first year of life. Specifically, 9-month-old Spanish infants successfully distinguish between stress-initial and stress-final pseudo-words, while French infants of this age show no sign of discrimination. In a second experiment using multiple tokens of a single pseudo-word, French infants of the same age successfully discriminate between the two stress patterns, showing that they are able to perceive the acoustic correlates of stress. Their failure to discriminate stress patterns in the first experiment thus reflects an inability to process stress at an abstract, phonological level.