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Abstract

Word recognition is a balancing act: listeners must be sensitive to phonetic detail to avoid confusing similar words, yet, at the same time, be flexible enough to adapt to phonetically variable pronunciations, such as those produced by speakers of different dialects or by non-native speakers. Recent work has demonstrated that young toddlers are sensitive to phonetic detail during word recognition; pronunciations that deviate from the typical phonological form lead to a disruption of processing. However, it is not known whether young word learners show the flexibility that is characteristic of adult word recognition. The present study explores whether toddlers can adapt to artificial accents in which there is a vowel category shift with respect to the native language. Nineteen-month-olds heard mispronunciations of familiar words (e.g. vowels were shifted from [a] to [æ]: ‘dog’ pronounced as ‘dag’). In test, toddlers were tolerant of mispronunciations if they had recently been exposed to the same vowel shift, but not if they had been exposed to standard pronunciations or other vowel shifts. The effects extended beyond particular items heard in exposure to words sharing the same vowels. These results indicate that, like adults, toddlers show flexibility in their interpretation of phonological detail. Moreover, they suggest that effects of top-down knowledge on the reinterpretation of phonological detail generalize across the phono-lexical system.