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Infant attention to phonetic detail in word forms : knowledge and familiarity effects Fennell, Christopher Terrence

Abstract

Several recent studies have shown that 14-month-old infants have difficulty learning to associate two phonetically similar new words to two different objects in the Switch task. Because infants can discriminate the same phonetic detail that they fail to use in word-learning situations, the argument is that this word-learning failure results from a processing overload on cognitive resources (resource limitation). However, an alternate explanation is that novice word learners fail in word-learning tasks because they have yet to build phonemic representations and rely on simpler phonetic representations in discrimination tasks (representational discontinuity). In Experiment One, these explanations were tested by exploring how infants perform in the Switch task with known minimally different words, which should ease processing since the object-label link is already established. Novice word learners succeeded in noticing the phonetic detail in these well-known words. These results are compatible with the limited resource explanation and discount the representational discontinuity argument by demonstrating that the relevant contrast is already present in words. Experiment Two further explored the resource limitation hypothesis by asking i f familiarity with a word-object combination is enough to ease processing and allow access to phonetic detail in the word. Fourteen-month-old infants succeeded in noticing the phonetic detail both when the word-object combination was well-known and when it was familiar. Experiment Three (Part A) confirmed that the infants' success in Experiment Two was not due to the perceptual salience of the contrast or to the use of the one-object version of the Switch procedure. Experiment Three (Part B) again explored the resource limitation theory by investigating if familiarity with the object alone, without familiarity with the word form, is enough to ease processing such that novice word learners could access phonetic detail. The standard analysis of total looking time did not reveal success in the task; however, an analysis of first looks indicated that the infants may be able to access phonetic detail when only the object is familiar. The studies presented in this thesis support continuity in the representation and differential access to phonetic detail as a function of processing load.

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