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Exploring the perception of phonemic vowel length contrasts: evidence from infants and adults

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posted on 2022-03-28, 01:32 authored by Hui Chen
Infants tune into native sound categories as early as in their first year, but in order to understand the language, they must become aware of the phonemic function of the sounds as well. A number of studies have investigated infants’ phonemic awareness of consonant and vowel quality contrasts at the early word learning stage, however, there has been no research directly examining infants’ early understanding of phonemic vowel length contrasts in a language where vowel duration can signal word meaning alone, such as Japanese, Finnish, Arabic, and even Australian English. Since vowels can also vary in duration as a function of prosodic context, an investigation of how phonemic vowel length is acquired is essential for understanding early phonological development more generally. This thesis therefore focuses on the perception of phonemic vowel length contrasts. It is comprised of three studies, targeting three populations respectively: Japanese infants, Australian English infants, and bi-dialectal Australian English adults. The first study revealed that Japanese infants have developed awareness of phonemic vowel length contrasts by 18 months, which is probably related to the systematicity and robustness of the contrasts manifesting in the language. The second study showed that Australian English-learning infants have become sensitive to mispronunciations of phonemic vowel length by at least 24 months, possibly earlier than often thought. The third study indicated that native Australian English adults, who have had early exposure to another English dialect that does not have contrastive vowel length, might have established more flexible phonological categories of phonemic vowel length, compared to those without this early exposure. Taken together, the findings of this thesis suggest that the development of phonemic vowel length contrasts is tied to the systematicity and stability of these contrasts in the language being learned.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Japanese infants are aware of phonemic vowel length in novel words at 18 months -- Chapter 3. Understanding the acquisition of phonemic vowel length contrasts in Australian English-learning 18- and 24-months-olds -- Chapter 4. Effect of early dialectal exposure on adult perception on phonemic vowel length -- Chapter 5. General discussion.


Theoretical thesis. At foot of title: Department of Linguistics, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University Sydney, Australia. Includes bibliographical references

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Linguistics

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Katherine Demuth

Additional Supervisor 1

Felicity Cox

Additional Supervisor 2

Nan Xu Rattanasone


Copyright Hui Chen 2016. Copyright disclaimer:




1 online resource (xii, 172 pages) colour illustrations

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