The different time course of phonotactic constraint learning in children and adults: Evidence from speech errors

Eleonore H.M. Smalle*, Merel Muylle, Arnaud Szmalec, Wouter Duyck

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Speech errors typically respect the speaker's implicit knowledge of language-wide phonotactics (e.g., /t/ cannot be a syllable onset in the English language). Previous work demonstrated that adults can learn novel experimentally induced phonotactic constraints by producing syllable strings in which the allowable position of a phoneme depends on another phoneme within the sequence (e.g., /t/ can only be an onset if the medial vowel is /i/), but not earlier than the second day of training. Thus far, no work has been done with children. In the current 4-day experiment, a group of Dutch-speaking adults and 9-year-old children were asked to rapidly recite sequences of novel word forms (e.g., kieng nief siet hiem) that were consistent with phonotactics of the spoken Dutch language. Within the procedure of the experiment, some consonants (i.e., /t/ and /k/) were restricted to the onset or coda position depending on the medial vowel (i.e., /i/ or "ie" vs. /ø:/ or "eu"). Speech errors in adults revealed a learning effect for the novel constraints on the second day of learning, consistent with earlier findings. A post hoc analysis at the trial level showed that learning was statistically reliable after an exposure of 120 sequence trials (including a consolidation period). However, children started learning the constraints already on the first day. More precisely, the effect appeared significantly after an exposure of 24 sequences. These findings indicate that children are rapid implicit learners of novel phonotactics, which bears important implications for theorizing about developmental sensitivities in language learning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1821-1827
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Children
  • Implicit learning
  • Phonotactic constraints
  • Speech errors


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