University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


Adults' phonotactic learning is affected by perceptual biases. One such bias concerns learning of constraints affecting groups of sounds: all else being equal, learning constraints affecting a natural class (a set of sounds sharing some phonetic characteristic) is easier than learning a constraint affecting an arbitrary set of sounds. This perceptual bias could be a given, for example, the result of innately guided learning; alternatively, it could be due to human learners’ experience with sounds. Using artificial grammars, we investigated whether such a bias arises in development, or whether it is present as soon as infants can learn phonotactics. Seven-month-old English-learning infants fail to generalize a phonotactic pattern involving fricatives and nasals, which does not form a coherent phonetic group, but succeed with the natural class of oral and nasal stops. In this paper, we report an experiment that explored whether those results also follow in a cohort of 4-month-olds. Unlike the older infants, 4-month-olds were able to generalize both groups, suggesting that the perceptual bias that makes phonotactic constraints on natural classes easier to learn is likely the effect of experience.