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Abstract

Previous research suggests that infant speech perception reorganizes in the first year: young infants discriminate both native and non-native phonetic contrasts, but by 10–12 months difficult non-native contrasts are less discriminable whereas performance improves on native contrasts. In the current study, four experiments tested the hypothesis that, in addition to the influence of native language experience, acoustic salience also affects the perceptual reorganization that takes place in infancy. Using a visual habituation paradigm, two nasal place distinctions that differ in relative acoustic salience, acoustically robust labial-alveolar [ma]–[na] and acoustically less salient alveolar-velar [na]–[ŋa], were presented to infants in a cross-language design. English-learning infants at 6–8 and 10–12 months showed discrimination of the native and acoustically robust [ma]–[na] (Experiment 1), but not the non-native (in initial position) and acoustically less salient [na]–[ŋa] (Experiment 2). Very young (4–5-month-old) English-learning infants tested on the same native and non-native contrasts also showed discrimination of only the [ma]–[na] distinction (Experiment 3). Filipino-learning infants, whose ambient language includes the syllable-initial alveolar (/n/)–velar (/ŋ/) contrast, showed discrimination of native [na]–[ŋa] at 10–12 months, but not at 6–8 months (Experiment 4). These results support the hypothesis that acoustic salience affects speech perception in infancy, with native language experience facilitating discrimination of an acoustically similar phonetic distinction [na]–[ŋa]. We discuss the implications of this developmental profile for a comprehensive theory of speech perception in infancy.