Words in a sea of sounds: the output of infant statistical learning.

TitleWords in a sea of sounds: the output of infant statistical learning.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2001
AuthorsSaffran JR
Date Published2001 Sep
KeywordsAuditory Perception, Child Development, Female, Humans, Infant, Language Development, Male, Noise, Semantics

One of the first problems confronting infant language learners is word segmentation: discovering the boundaries between words. Prior research suggests that 8-month-old infants can detect the statistical patterns that serve as a cue to word boundaries. However, the representational structure of the output of this learning process is unknown. This research assessed the extent to which statistical learning generates novel word-like units, rather than probabilistically-related strings of sounds. Eight-month-old infants were familiarized with a continuous stream of nonsense words with no acoustic cues to word boundaries. A post-familiarization test compared the infants' responses to words versus part-words (sequences spanning a word boundary) embedded either in simple English contexts familiar to the infants (e.g. "I like my tibudo"), or in matched nonsense frames (e.g. "zy fike ny tibudo"). Listening preferences were affected by the context (English versus nonsense) in which the items from the familiarization phase were embedded during testing. A second experiment confirmed that infants can discriminate the simple English contexts and the matched nonsense frames used in Experiment 1. The third experiment replicated the results of Experiment 1 by contrasting the English test frames with non-linguistic frames generated from tone sequences. The results support the hypothesis that statistical learning mechanisms generate word-like units with some status relative to the native language.

Alternate JournalCognition
PubMed ID11376640
Grant ListHD03352 / HD / NICHD NIH HHS / United States
HD37466 / HD / NICHD NIH HHS / United States