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Building phonological lexical representations*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 October 2015

Suzanne V. H. van der Feest*
University of Texas at Austin
Paula Fikkert*
Radboud University Nijmegen


This paper contributes to the ongoing debate on how much detail young children's word representations contain. We investigate early representations of place of articulation and voicing contrasts, inspired by previously attested asymmetrical patterns in children's early word productions. We tested Dutch-learning 20- and 24-month-olds’ perception of these fundamentally different contrasts in a mispronunciation-detection paradigm. Our results show that different kinds and directions of phonological changes yield different effects. Both 20- and 24-month-olds noticed coronal mispronunciations of labials, but not vice versa. The 24-month-olds noticed voiced mispronunciations of voiceless stops, but not vice versa, while the 20-month-olds failed to notice any voicing mispronunciations. We argue that early lexical representations are specified in very systematic ways, that not all phonological contrasts are encoded at the same time and that the phonological system of a language determines which contrasts are specified first in the representations of early words.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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This research was supported by NWO (Dutch NSF) grant 360-70-100, awarded to Paula Fikkert and René Kager. All experiments were conducted in the Nijmegen Baby Research Center, supported by the NWO Spinoza grant ‘Native and non-native listening’, awarded to Anne Cutler. We thank Angela Khadar and the rest of the Nijmegen Baby Research Center staff, as well as all participating parents and children for their assistance in the completion of this study. We thank Fieke Noordzij for her help with recordings, Christopher Fennell, and four anonymous reviewers for comments on previous versions of this manuscript. This research was completed as part of the first author's PhD dissertation.


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