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The first steps in word learning are easier when the shoes fit: comparing monolingual and bilingual infants

Authors


Karen Mattock, Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Fylde College, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UK; e-mail: k.mattock@lancaster.ac.uk

Abstract

English, French, and bilingual English-French 17-month-old infants were compared for their performance on a word learning task using the Switch task. Object names presented a /b/ vs. /g/ contrast that is phonemic in both English and French, and auditory strings comprised English and French pronunciations by an adult bilingual. Infants were habituated to two novel objects labeled ‘bowce’ or ‘gowce’ and were then presented with a switch trial where a familiar word and familiar object were paired in a novel combination, and a same trial with a familiar word–object pairing. Bilingual infants looked significantly longer to switch vs. same trials, but English and French monolinguals did not, suggesting that bilingual infants can learn word–object associations when the phonetic conditions favor their input. Monolingual infants likely failed because the bilingual mode of presentation increased phonetic variability and did not match their real-world input. Experiment 2 tested this hypothesis by presenting monolingual infants with nonce word tokens restricted to native language pronunciations. Monolinguals succeeded in this case. Experiment 3 revealed that the presence of unfamiliar pronunciations in Experiment 2, rather than a reduction in overall phonetic variability was the key factor to success, as French infants failed when tested with English pronunciations of the nonce words. Thus phonetic variability impacts how infants perform in the switch task in ways that contribute to differences in monolingual and bilingual performance. Moreover, both monolinguals and bilinguals are developing adaptive speech processing skills that are specific to the language(s) they are learning.

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