Colloquium: Infants learning of phonological status

May 31, 3:30-5pm, Cobb 201
Amanda Seidl, Purdue University

There is a substantial literature describing how infants become more sensitive to differences between native phonemes (sounds that are both present and meaningful in the input) and less sensitive to differences between non-native phonemes (sounds that are neither present nor meaningful in the input) over the course of development. In this talk, I will review an emergent strand of literature that goes beyond these presence/absence contrasts. This new research documents infants' discovery of phonological status, signaled by a differential processing of allophones and phonemes. Because allophonic alternates are processed differently by adult speakers, the child has to, at some point, come to treat allophones differently as well. Interestingly, some evidence suggests that learning the different status of allophonic vs. phonemic alternates seems to occur before the child had accrued a large lexicon of minimally different words, which are certainly phonemic (e.g., din/tin). Specifically, infants may succeed in treating allophonic alternates differently from contrastive or phonemic sound alternations as early as 11 months of age. I will lay out corpora analyses, experimental research, and perhaps even some computational work which sheds light on how infants may achieve this feat. Collectively, this work suggests that the computation of complementary distribution and the calculation of phonetic similarity may operate in concert to guide infants towards their functional interpretation of sounds that are present in the input, yet not contrastive. In addition to reviewing this emerging literature on a puzzling aspect of acquisition, I will also discuss the broader implications of this research for fundamental theoretical and empirical questions on early language acquisition and theoretical phonology.