Role of experience for language-specific functional mappings of vowel sounds

Keith R. Kluender, Andrew J. Lotto, Lori L. Holt, Suzi L. Bloedel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Studies involving human infants and monkeys suggest that experience plays a critical role in modifying how subjects respond to vowel sounds between and within phonemic classes. Experiments with human listeners were conducted to establish appropriate stimulus materials. Then, eight European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) were trained to respond differentially to vowel tokens drawn from stylized distributions for the English vowels /i/ and /I/, or from two distributions of vowel sounds that were orthogonal in the F1-F2 plane. Following training, starlings' responses generalized with facility to novel stimuli drawn from these distributions. Responses could be predicted well on the bases of frequencies of the first two formants and distributional characteristics of experienced vowel sounds with a graded structure about the central 'prototypical' vowel of the training distributions. Starling responses corresponded closely to adult human judgments of 'goodness' for English vowel sounds. Finally, a simple linear association network model trained with vowels drawn from the avian training set provided a good account for the data. Findings suggest that little more than sensitivity to statistical regularities of language input (probability-density distributions) together with organizational processes that serve to enhance distinctiveness may accommodate much of what is known about the functional equivalence of vowel sounds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3568-3582
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the Acoustical Society of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Acoustics and Ultrasonics


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