The effects of lexical pitch accent on infant word recognition in Japanese

Mitsuhiko Ota, Naoto Yamane, Reiko Mazuka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Learners of lexical tone languages (e.g., Mandarin) develop sensitivity to tonal contrasts and recognize pitch-matched, but not pitch-mismatched, familiar words by 11 months. Learners of nontone languages (e.g., English) also show a tendency to treat pitch patterns as lexically contrastive up to about 18 months. In this study, we examined if this early-developing capacity to lexically-encode pitch variations enables infants to acquire a pitch accent system, in which pitch-based lexical contrasts are obscured by the interaction of lexical and nonlexical (i.e., intonational) features. Eighteen 17-month-olds learning Tokyo Japanese were tested on their recognition of familiar words with the expected pitch or the lexically opposite pitch pattern. In early trials, infants were faster in shifting their eyegaze from the distractor object to the target object than in shifting from the target to distractor in the pitch-matched condition. In later trials, however, infants showed faster distractor-to-target than target-to-distractor shifts in both the pitch-matched and pitch-mismatched conditions. We interpret these results to mean that, in a pitch-accent system, the ability to use pitch variations to recognize words is still in a nascent state at 17 months.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2354
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2018


  • pitch accent
  • intonation
  • Japanese
  • infants
  • word recognition


Dive into the research topics of 'The effects of lexical pitch accent on infant word recognition in Japanese'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this