Language acquisition involves both acquiring a set of words (i.e. the lexicon) and learning the rules that combine them to form sentences (i.e. syntax). Here, we show that consonants are mainly involved in word processing, whereas vowels are favored for extracting and generalizing structural relations. We demonstrate that such a division of labor between consonants and vowels plays a role in language acquisition. In two very similar experimental paradigms, we show that 12-month-old infants rely more on the consonantal tier when identifying words (Experiment 1), but are better at extracting and generalizing repetition-based srtuctures over the vocalic tier (Experiment 2). These results indicate that infants are able to exploit the functional differences between consonants and vowels at an age when they start acquiring the lexicon, and suggest that basic speech categories are assigned to different learning mechanisms that sustain early language acquisition.