Phoneme learning is influenced by the taxonomic similarity of the semantic referents

AbstractWord learning relies on the ability to master the sound contrasts that are phonemic (i.e., signal meaning difference) in a given language. Though the timeline of phoneme development has been studied extensively over the past few decades, the mechanism of this development is poorly understood. Previous work has shown that human learners rely on referential information to differentiate similar sounds, but largely ignored the problem of taxonomic ambiguity at the semantic level (two different objects may be described by one or two words depending on how abstract the meaning intended by the speaker is). In this study, we varied the taxonomic distance of pairs of objects and tested how adult learners judged the phonemic status of the sound contrast associated with each of these pairs. We found that judgments were sensitive to gradients in the taxonomic structure, suggesting that learners use probabilistic information at the semantic level to optimize the accuracy of their judgments at the phonological level. The findings provide evidence for an interaction between phonological learning and meaning generalization, raising important questions about how these two important processes of language acquisition are related.

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