Functional Load and Frequency as Predictors of Consonant Emergence across Five Languages

AbstractFrequency often predicts when children will acquire units of language such as words or phones. An additional predictor of language development may be a phone’s functional load (FL), or the contrastive work a sound performs in a language. A higher FL may correlate with earlier phone emergence in child speech as children selectively converge upon the most meaningful contrasts in their input. This hypothesis is tested across five typologically diverse languages that vary by phone inventory size and structure as well as word composition. Consonant FL was calculated over more than 390,000 words of child-directed speech. Results demonstrate that the relationship of frequency and FL to speech development is dependent upon the language of exposure. Models fit to bootstrapped corpus data suggest that frequency may be the stronger of the two parameters.

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