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Keywords:

  • Associative learning;
  • Word learning;
  • Language development;
  • Switch task;
  • Phonological development;
  • Variability

Abstract

At 14 months, children appear to struggle to apply their fairly well-developed speech perception abilities to learning similar sounding words (e.g., bih/dih; Stager & Werker, 1997). However, variability in nonphonetic aspects of the training stimuli seems to aid word learning at this age. Extant theories of early word learning cannot account for this benefit of variability. We offer a simple explanation for this range of effects based on associative learning. Simulations suggest that if infants encode both noncontrastive information (e.g., cues to speaker voice) and meaningful linguistic cues (e.g., place of articulation or voicing), then associative learning mechanisms predict these variability effects in early word learning. Crucially, this means that despite the importance of task variables in predicting performance, this body of work shows that phonological categories are still developing at this age, and that the structure of noninformative cues has critical influences on word learning abilities.