The Influence of Phonological Similarity on Multisyllabic Word Acquisition in Children




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Multisyllabic words represent a major, and increasingly large, proportion of the new words children learn as they develop. While new CVC words are easier to acquire if they are phonologically similar to already known words, it is unclear if this effect generalizes to multisyllabic words. Here, we hypothesized that the number of phonologically similar words, i.e., phonological neighborhood density, and the frequency of those phonologically similar words, i.e., phonological neighborhood frequency, would positively predict multisyllabic word acquisition, and that the impact of these variables would change across development. To test these hypotheses, we developed an automated, corpus-based approach and a new stressed syllable-based similarity metric, Stress: Onset Nucleus (SON) similarity, for multisyllabic words. We applied this new approach to a corpus of child-adult conversational transcripts recorded at 36, 48 and 72 months. We confirmed the ability of the approach to detect meaningful effects by recovering the behaviorally established effect of neighborhood density on monosyllabic CVC words. Conversely, we did not detect any influence of the less established neighborhood frequency effect with CVC words, and therefore chose not to pursue the neighborhood frequency effect in multisyllabic words. We then used this approach to investigate to what extent multisyllabic word acquisition was influenced by neighborhood density, created with the SON similarity metric. Surprisingly, we were unable to detect an influence at any age. The contrast between this null result and the confirmatory CVC study suggests that the influence of phonological similarity might differ in multisyllabic and CVC word acquisition. This study reveals gaps in our understanding of multisyllabic word acquisition, and underscores the need for future studies that focus specifically on multisyllabic words.



Phonological awareness in children, Phonetics, Syllabication, Language acquisition, Speech therapy for children