Statistical learning or phonological universals? Ambient language statistics guide consonant acquisition in four languages


What predicts individual differences in children’s acquisition of consonant production across languages? Considerations of children’s development of early speech production have traditionally emphasized inherent physiological constraints of the vocal apparatus that speakers generally have in common (i.e., articulatory complexity). In contrast, we propose a statistical learning account of phonological development, in which phonological regularities of the ambient language guide children’s learning of those regularities in production. Across four languages (English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean), we utilized recent meta-analytic dataset of age of consonant acquisition spanning 28 studies. High-density measures of children’s ambient language environment from over 8,000 transcripts of speech directed to over 1,000 children were used to assess how well the frequency of consonants in child-directed speech predict the age of consonant acquisition. Our results suggest that both frequency and articulatory complexity are related to age of acquisition, with similar results found for English, Spanish, Japanese, and Korean. Consonants heard frequently by children tended to be incorporated into their production repertoires earlier and consonants heard less frequently are incorporated into production repertoires later in development. We discuss future directions that incorporate a statistical learning pathway towards learning to produce the sound patterns of the ambient language.

Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society 2023