Three- and four-year-olds' perceptual confusions for spoken words

Louann Gerken, Walter D. Murphy, Richard N. Aslin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Although infants have the ability to discriminate a variety of speech contrasts, young children cannot always use this ability in the service of spoken-word recognition. The research reported here asked whether the reason young children sometimes fail to discriminate minimal word pairs is that they are less efficient at word recognition than adults, or whether it is that they employ different lexical representations. In particular, the research evaluated the proposal that young children's lexical representations are more "holistic" than those of adults, and are based on overall acoustic-phonetic properties, as opposed to phonetic segments. Three- and four-year-olds were exposed initially to an invariant target word and were subsequently asked to determine whether a series of auditory stimuli matched or did not match the target. The critical test stimuli were nonwords that varied in their degree of phonetic featural overlap with the target, as well as in terms of the position(s) within the stimuli at which they differed from the target, and whether they differed from the target on one or two segments. Data from four experiments demonstrated that the frequency with which children mistook a nonword stimulus for the target was influenced by extent of featural overlap, but not by word position. The data also showed that, contrary to the predictions of the holistic hypothesis, stimuli differing from the target by two features on a single segment were confused with the target more often than were stimuli differing by a single feature on each of two segments. This finding suggests that children use both phonetic features and segments in accessing their mental lexicons, and that they are therefore much more similar to adults than is suggested by the holistic hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)475-486
Number of pages12
JournalPerception & Psychophysics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • General Psychology


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