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Learning Vowel Categories From Maternal Speech in Gurindji Kriol


  • We acknowledge the participation of speakers of Gurindji Kriol, who wish their personal participation to be made public: Samantha Smiler and her family. We acknowledge and thank the community leaders at Kalkaringi and Daguragu for supporting this research. The raw data were collected as a part of the Aboriginal Child Language project which was funded by the Australian Research Council (chief investigators Gillian Wigglesworth, Jane Simpson, and Patrick McConvell, and based at University of Melbourne). The research in the present paper was supported by Discovery Grant DP0985395 “Phonological development in child speakers of mixed language” (2009–2012) from the Australian Research Council.

Caroline Jones, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Education  & Interdisciplinary Educational Research Institute, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia. Internet:


Distributional learning is a proposal for how infants might learn early speech sound categories from acoustic input before they know many words. When categories in the input differ greatly in relative frequency and overlap in acoustic space, research in bilingual development suggests that this affects the course of development. In the present study we describe the nature and extent of vowel variation in nearly 900 vowel tokens in maternal speech in Gurindji Kriol, a mixed language of northern Australia, which, like bilingual input, has differences in the relative frequency of adjacent, overlapping vowel categories. In Analysis 1, we provide the first systematic account of vowel variation and phone frequency in maternal speech in Gurindji Kriol. In Analysis 2, cluster analysis was applied to the vowel formant and duration data, to see what categories might emerge from acoustic data alone. The results suggest that, were infants to base their initial vowel categories solely on the clusters emerging in acoustic space, they might likely set up relatively few vowel categories. We discuss implications for how infants may learn Gurindji Kriol and for distributional learning.