Interpretations of vowels in familiar words: English-learning infants and Ethiopian Adoptees
How well do children know the sounds that make up familiar words? We can ask questions like these using a visual fixation task (Fernald, Pinto, Swingley, Weinberg, & McRoberts, 1998). Children see two familiar images (e.g. a ball and a car) and hear sentences directing them to look at one (e.g. “Look at the ball! Isn’t it pretty?”). Using mispronounced words (MPs), we compare looks in response to “ball” to trials where the target is called a “gall”. Young children look significantly less to target upon hearing the MP, indicating that they have a detailed idea of the sounds that make up the word (Swingley & Aslin, 2000). Children only acknowledge the MP if the sound change generally contrasts meaning in their native language (Deitrich, Swingley & Werker, 2007). We used this procedure to show that 14 – 26 month olds can detect word-medial vowel MPs. We contrast this with preliminary data from recent Ethiopian adoptees. In Amharic, the difference between the correct pronunciation and the MP does not change the vowel identity. If word learning occurred using the sound system of their first language, they might interpret these instances of the word as being equally good. If they detect the MP, they may have already acquired the vowel structure of English. The results can shed light on how internationally adopted children approach the task of learning English, and may guide research on how words and sound categories build off of each other in early word learning.