Infants' perception of native and non-native pitch contrasts

Author(s): Sónia Frota, Joseph Butler, Shuang Lu and Marina Vigário


Infants’ ability to distinguish between forms of phonetic variation in speech that are relevant to meaning is essential for their language development. Little is known about the developmental course of infants’ perception of pitch contrasts, particularly in the presence of segmental variability which entails the ability to extract and generalize the contrastive patterns. Using single-bisyllabic utterances, in Experiment 1 we examined native discrimination of the statement (falling)/yes-no question (falling-rising) intonation contrast by European Portuguese (EP)-learning infants, and demonstrated that both 5-6 and 8-9 month-old infants were able to discriminate the contrast. Experiment 2 addressed the question whether the contrast between falling vs. falling-rising contours would also be perceived in segmentally varied non-native input. EP-learning infants’ perception of the lexical distinction between Mandarin Chinese Tone 1+Tone 4 and Tone 1+Tone 2, with overall similar contour shapes but different implementation of the falling/rising patterns throughout the segmental string, was examined. Infants failed to discriminate the non-native pitch contrast, both at 5-6 months and 8-9 months, suggesting that language-specific perception for pitch, and for the tone/intonation distinction, emerges as early as 5 months of age.


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