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Finding patterns and learning words: Infant phonotactic knowledge is associated with vocabulary size


Native language statistical regularities about allowable phoneme combinations (i.e., phonotactic patterns) may provide learners with cues to support word learning. The current research investigated the association between infants' native language phonotactic knowledge and their word learning progress, as measured by vocabulary size. In the experiment, 19-month-old infants listened to a corpus of nonce words that contained novel phonotactic patterns. All words began with "illegal" consonant clusters that cannot occur in native (English) words. The rationale for the task was that infants with fragile phonotactic knowledge should exhibit stronger learning of the novel illegal phonotactic patterns than infants with robust phonotactic knowledge. We found that infants with smaller vocabularies showed stronger phonotactic learning than infants with larger vocabularies even after accounting for general cognition. We propose that learning about native language structure may promote vocabulary development by providing a foundation for word learning; infants with smaller vocabularies may have weaker support from phonotactics than infants with larger vocabularies. Furthermore, stored vocabulary knowledge may promote the detection of phonotactic patterns even during infancy.

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