The Lexicon and Phonology:
Interactions in Language Acquisition
Holly L. Storkel1
Michele L. Morrisette
Indiana University, Bloomington
24 LANGUAGE, SPEECH, AND HEARING SERVICES IN SCHOOLS • Vol. 33 • 24–37 • January 2002 © American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 0161–1461/02/3301–0024
ABSTRACT: The purpose of this paper is to underscore
the importance of the link between lexical and phonological
acquisition by considering learning by children
beyond the 50-word stage and by applying cognitive
models of spoken word processing to development.
Lexical and phonological variables that have been shown
to influence perception and production across the
lifespan are considered relative to their potential role in
learning by preschool children. The effect of these
lexical and phonological variables on perception,
production, and learning are discussed in the context of
a two-representation connectionist model of spoken word
processing. The model appears to offer insights into the
complex interaction between the lexicon and phonology
and may be useful for clinical diagnosis and treatment of
children with language delays.
KEY WORDS: language development, lexicon, phonology,
neighborhood density, phonotactic probability
To acquire the native language, a child must do
two things: Learn the words of the language
and extract the relevant phonological characteristics
of those words. For the most part, the acquisition
of words and sounds has been investigated independently.
That is, some lines of investigation concentrate exclusively on how the words of the language are acquired (e.g., Carey
& Bartlett, 1978; Dollaghan, 1985; Heibeck & Markman, 1987; Jusczyk & Aslin, 1995; Rice & Woodsmall, 1988), whereas other lines of research examine how the sounds of
the language emerge (e.g., Dinnsen, Chin, Elbert, &
Powell, 1990; Dyson, 1988; Smit, Hand, Freilinger,
Bernthal, & Bird, 1990; Stoel-Gammon, 1985). The mutual
influence of lexical and phonological development is an
area that has received only limited attention. The few
descriptive and experimental studies that have addressed
this issue, however, provide preliminary evidence for an
interaction between lexical and phonological development.
Descriptive studies primarily have examined the relationship between the phonological characteristics of babble and
first words. Studies of typically developing children have
shown that first words are phonologically similar to babble
(e.g., Oller, Wieman, Doyle, & Ross, 1976; Stoel-Gammon
& Cooper, 1984; Vihman, Ferguson, & Elbert, 1986;
Vihman, Macken, Miller, Simmons, & Miller, 1985). For
example, the distribution of consonants and the syllable
structure of first words are identical to that of babble
(Vihman et al., 1985). This association between lexical and
phonological development is observed in children with
precocious language development as well as in children
with delayed language development (Paul & Jennings,
1992; Stoel-Gammon & Dale, 1988; Thal, Oroz, & McCaw, 1995; Whitehurst, Smith, Fischel, Arnold, & Lonigan,
1991). In particular, children who know many words tend
to produce a greater variety of sounds and sound combinations, whereas children who know few words tend to
produce a limited variety of sounds and sound combinations.
There appears to be a potentially robust relationship
between the phonological characteristics of first words and
babble. This is suggestive of an intimate connection
between word learning and productive phonology.
In addition to descriptive evidence, experimental studies
provide further support for the hypothesis that lexical and
phonological development influence one another. For
example, one study of young children with expressive
language delay demonstrated that treatment focused on
1 Currently affiliated with the University of Kansas.
Storkel • Morrisette: The...