Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 49 (December 2006), pp. 1175–1192; doi: 10.1044/1092-4388(2006/085) Copyright © 2006 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Used by permission.


Purpose: The purpose of this study was to differentiate effects of phonotactic probability, the likelihood of occurrence of a sound sequence, and neighborhood density, the number of words that sound similar to a given word, on adult word learning. A second purpose was to determine what aspect of word learning (viz., triggering learning, formation of an initial representation, or integration with existing representations) was influenced by each variable.
Method: Thirty-two adults were exposed to 16 nonwords paired with novel objects in a story context. The nonwords orthogonally varied in phonotactic probability and neighborhood density. Learning was measured following 1, 4, and 7 exposures in a picture-naming task. Partially correct (i.e., 2 of 3 phonemes correct) and completely correct responses (i.e., 3 of 3 phonemes correct) were analyzed together and independently to examine emerging and partial representations of new words versus complete and accurate representations of new words.
Results: Analysis of partially correct and completely correct responses combined showed that adults learned a lower proportion of high-probability nonwords than low-probability nonwords (i.e., high-probability disadvantage) and learned a higher proportion of high-density nonwords than low-density nonwords (i.e., high-density advantage). Separate analysis of partially correct responses yielded an effect of phonotactic probability only, whereas analysis of completely correct responses yielded an effect of neighborhood density only.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that phonological and lexical processing influence different aspects of word learning. In particular, phonotactic probability may aid in triggering new learning, whereas neighborhood density may influence the integration of new lexical representations with existing representations.