Laboratoire Psychologie de la Perception Institut Neurosciences Cognition Université Paris Descartes Centre National de Recherche Scientifique
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Baby Lab

Early syllabic segmentation of fluent speech by infants acquiring French.

Word form segmentation abilities emerge during the first year of life, and it has been proposed that infants initially rely on two types of cues to extract words from fluent speech: Transitional Probabilities (TPs) and rhythmic units. The main goal of the present study was to use the behavioral method of the Headturn Preference Procedure (HPP) to investigate again rhythmic segmentation of syllabic units by French-learning infants at the onset of segmentation abilities (around 8 months) given repeated failure to find syllabic segmentation at such a young age. The second goal was to explore the interaction between the use of TPs and syllabic units for segmentation by French-learning infants. The rationale was that decreasing TP cues around target syllables embedded in bisyllabic words would block bisyllabic word segmentation and facilitate the observation of syllabic segmentation. In Experiments 1 and 2, infants were tested in a condition of moderate TP decrease; no evidence of either syllabic or bisyllabic word segmentation was found. In Experiment 3, infants were tested in a condition of more marked TP decrease, and a novelty syllabic segmentation effect was observed. Therefore, the present study first establishes early syllabic segmentation in French-learning infants, bringing support from a syllable-based language to the proposal that rhythmic units are used at the onset of segmentation abilities. Second, it confirms that French-learning infants are sensitive to TP cues. Third, it demonstrates that they are sensitive to the relative weight of TP and rhythmic cues, explaining why effects of syllabic segmentation are not observed in context of high TPs. These findings are discussed in relation to theories of word segmentation bootstrapping, and the larger debate about statistically- versus prosodically-based accounts of early language acquisition.

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