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Object Familiarity Enhances Infants’ Use of Phonetic Detail in Novel Words

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  • If the outlier is reintroduced, the control condition remains nonsignificant (p = .35); however, the interaction fails to reach significance due to the increased variability (p = .096).

should be sent to Christopher T. Fennell, School of Psychology and Department of Linguistics, University of Ottawa, 136 Jean-Jacques-Lussier, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada. E-mail: fennell@uottawa.ca

Abstract

Infants greatly refine their ability to discriminate language sounds by 12 months, yet 14-month-olds appear to confuse similar-sounding novel words. Two explanations could account for this phenomenon: infants initially have incomplete phoneme representations, suggesting developmental discontinuity; or word-learning demands interfere with use of established phonetic detail. These hypotheses were tested at 14 months by pairing a novel word with an object preexposed to half the infants and novel to the other half. If demands are key, only preexposed infants should efficiently use phonetic detail; there is no need to concurrently learn object details with the word. If representations lack detail, object familiarity should not matter. Only infants preexposed to the object noticed a change in its label, thus challenging the discontinuity position and demonstrating the impact of object familiarity on early word learning.

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