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Dense neighborhoods and mechanisms of learning: evidence from children with phonological delay*


There is a noted advantage of dense neighborhoods in language acquisition, but the learning mechanism that drives the effect is not well understood. Two hypotheses – long-term auditory word priming and phonological working memory – have been advanced in the literature as viable accounts. These were evaluated in two treatment studies enrolling twelve children with phonological delay. Study 1 exposed children to dense neighbors versus non-neighbors before training sound production in evaluation of the priming hypothesis. Study 2 exposed children to the same stimuli after training sound production as a test of the phonological working memory hypothesis. Results showed that neighbors led to greater phonological generalization than non-neighbors, but only when presented prior to training production. There was little generalization and no differential effect of exposure to neighbors or non-neighbors after training production. Priming was thus supported as a possible mechanism of learning behind the dense neighborhood advantage in phonological acquisition.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Judith A. Gierut, Department of Speech & Hearing Sciences, 200 South Jordan Avenue, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47407, USA. e-mail:
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This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DC001694. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. We thank Dan Dinnsen for input on the manuscript, Rachel Dale and Maureen Orawiec for assistance with stimulus development, and members of the Learnability Project for help with phonetic transcription, reliability, data entry, and analyses. Paul and Alice Sharp of Sharp Designs & Illustration Inc. supplied the illustrations.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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