Isolated words enhance statistical language learning in infancy

Authors


Casey Lew-Williams, Waisman Center, Infant Learning Lab, 1500 Highland Ave., Room 501, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53705-2280, USA; e-mail: lewwilliams@wisc.edu

Abstract

Infants are adept at tracking statistical regularities to identify word boundaries in pause-free speech. However, researchers have questioned the relevance of statistical learning mechanisms to language acquisition, since previous studies have used simplified artificial languages that ignore the variability of real language input. The experiments reported here embraced a key dimension of variability in infant-directed speech. English-learning infants (8–10 months) listened briefly to natural Italian speech that contained either fluent speech only or a combination of fluent speech and single-word utterances. Listening times revealed successful learning of the statistical properties of target words only when words appeared both in fluent speech and in isolation; brief exposure to fluent speech alone was not sufficient to facilitate detection of the words’ statistical properties. This investigation suggests that statistical learning mechanisms actually benefit from variability in utterance length, and provides the first evidence that isolated words and longer utterances act in concert to support infant word segmentation.

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