Do children privilege phonological cues in noun class learning?

AbstractPrevious research on acquisition of noun class systems, such as grammatical gender, has shown that child learners rely disproportionately on phonological cues to class, even when competing semantic cues are more reliable. Culbertson, Gagliardi, and Smith (2017) use artificial language learning experiments with adults to argue that over-reliance on phonology may be due to the fact that phonological cues are available first; learners base early representations on surface phonological dependencies, only later integrating semantic cues from noun meanings. Here, we show that child learners (6-7 year-olds) show this same sensitivity to early availability. However, we also find intriguing evidence of developmental changes in sensitivity to semantics; when both cues are simultaneously available children are more likely to rely on a phonology cue than adults. Our results suggest that early availability and a bias in favor of phonological cues may both contribute to children’s over-reliance on phonology in natural language acquisition.

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