During infancy, humans rapidly develop the ability to comprehend and produce words through the language acquisition process. The language a given child acquires depends fundamentally on their environment. The mechanisms underlying language acquisition have become of interest to researchers within the past few decades. Notably, research has found a wealth of support for the role of statistical monitoring in young children’s language acquisition.
Specifically, one study examined what strategy children use when segmenting fluent speech streams into separate words. The researchers hypothesized that children statistically monitor speech sounds, then use this in determining what sounds are words. Sounds that occur in a word together should be heard more frequently than sounds that are not in words together. These infrequently-heard sounds should only occur at word divisions. For example, in the phrase “pretty baby”, pre and ty occur more frequently in English than that sounds ty and ba, indicating that this is where the word is segmented.
To examine whether children statistically monitor word sounds (also called phonemes) when segmenting words, the researchers had 8-month-old infants listen to a series of real words composed of familiar syllables and a series of those same syllables scrambled in a nonsense order. The only indicator of word segmentation was the frequency of sounds occurring together (for example, bi and da occur together frequently). The study used listening time as a measure – infants have been found to habituate to familiar (rule-following) words, but will continue to pay attention to unexpected (rule-violating) words. These data are displayed in the following table.
Table 1. The mean length of time (seconds) 8-month-old infants spend listening to familiar and novel words (experiment 1) and familiar words and partial familiar words (experiment 2). SE = standard error.
|Experiment||Mean Listening Times|
|Familiar Words||Novel Words|
(SE = 0.41)
(SE = 0.44)
(SE = 0.42)
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