Given that nouns rarely appear in isolation in French, infants acquiring the language must often retrieve the underlying representation of vowel-initial lexical forms from liaison contexts which provide conflicting information about their initial phoneme. Given this ambiguity, how do learners represent these nouns in their lexicon, and how do these representations change as their knowledge of liaison and the lexicon become more adult-like? To explore this question, we analyze the types of errors children make, in both naturalistic and elicited speech, and how these are affected by input frequency. In doing so, we evaluate two major proposals for how children’s early representations of liaison develop. The first model, couched in a constructionist framework, predicts relatively late mastery of liaison (age 5 or older) and heavy dependence on the contexts in which a particular noun appears in the input. The second model, takes an approach to liaison development which integrates it more closely with general phonological development, and predicts relatively early mastery (by age 3). The results of a corpus study reveal that by age 3 children are correctly producing liaison in the nominal domain and that their production errors are consistent with a phonological model of liaison acquisition. An elicitation task demonstrates that 3-year-olds’ succeed at learning and correctly apply their knowledge of liaison to new nouns following brief exposure, though their productions continue to be influenced by nouns’ input distributions. Taken together, our findings suggest that by age 3 children are well on their way to adult-like representations of liaison. A phonologically-based model, incorporating the effect of distributional context on early errors, provides a better overall fit to the data we present.*
- language acquisition
- French liaison
- word segmentation
- distributional cues
- abstract knowledge
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