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Names in frames: infants interpret words in sentence frames faster than words in isolation


Address for correspondence: Anne Fernald, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford CA 94305, USA; e-mail:


In child-directed speech (CDS), adults often use utterances with very few words; many include short, frequently used sentence frames, while others consist of a single word in isolation. Do such features of CDS provide perceptual advantages for the child? Based on descriptive analyses of parental speech, some researchers argue that isolated words should help infants in word recognition by facilitating segmentation, while others predict no advantage. To address this question directly, we used online measures of speech processing in a looking-while-listening procedure. In two experiments, 18-month-olds were presented with familiar object names in isolation and in a sentence frame. Infants were 120 ms slower to interpret target words in isolation than when the same words were preceded by a familiar carrier phrase, suggesting that the sentence frame facilitated word recognition. Familiar frames may enable the infant to ‘listen ahead’ more efficiently for the focused word at the end of the sentence.