FRAL - Programme franco-allemand en Sciences humaines et sociales

Crosslinguistic developmental comparison of the processing of consonants and vowels in early lexical acquisition – CROSSCV

Submission summary

The proposal by Nespor et al. (2003) that consonants are more involved than vowels in word encoding and recognition has been supported by both toddler and adult studies. However, while this consonantal advantage (also called C-bias) is possibly very stable in adulthood across languages, its emergence might not follow the same trajectory cross-linguistically in infancy as differences between languages have been reported in the developmental literature. Indeed, while in French a consonant advantage at the lexical level has been firmly demonstrated from 8 months of age onwards, this asymmetry has not been observed before 30 months of age in English. Moreover, at 20 months, German-learning infants were shown to be as sensitive to vocalic as to consonantal information, and Danish-learning infants have a vocalic bias. This cross-linguistic variation strongly suggests that the lexical C-bias is acquired during language acquisition, which questions the original assumption of a language-general, possibly innate bias that facilitates lexical acquisition. However, it is still under question which language-specific properties affect the expression of the C-bias.
The proposed cross-linguistic developmental project aims to shed more light on the potential role of language input in the emergence and the time course of the C-bias by systematically comparing the relative sensitivity to and use of consonants and vowels by German- and French-learning infants at different ages and across different lexical tasks. German and French differ on several variables likely to affect the processing of consonants and vowels: their consonant-vowel ratio (German: 25–15 vs. French 17–15), their rhythmic structure (German: stress-timed language, French: syllable-based language), the existence of lexical stress (present in German, but not in French), the phonetic feature of tenseness (German distinguishes tense and lax vowels; French does not), etc.
Data from French- and German-learning infants from birth to 20 months will be collected in Paris and Potsdam. All tasks tap into the comparative use of consonantal and vocalic information in lexically-related processing at different processing levels: TASKs 1-2 will focus on the processing of word forms without meaning and TASKs 3-5 will focus on the processing of known words. The studies will rely on an array of behavioral (HPP, eye-tracking), electrophysiological (ERPs), and neuroimaging (NIRS) techniques. Our findings will bring crucial information regarding the origin and developmental trajectory of the C-bias in lexical processing. It will bring new insights about the interaction between innate perceptual capacities and linguistic input by exploring the differential roles of consonants and vowels at birth and by determining the cross-linguistically invariant versus language-specific aspects of the emergence of the C-bias.

Project coordination

Thierry NAZZI (Laboratorie Psychologie de la Perception)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


UPD-LPP Laboratorie Psychologie de la Perception
UP Universität Potsdam

Help of the ANR 199,791 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: August 2017 - 36 Months

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