Foundations of psycholinguistics
Week 3
The beginnings of language acquisition
Vasiliki (Celia) Antoniou
• Is knowledge about prosody useful to the
newborn language learner?
• Are newborns able to perceive speech in
terms of syllables?
• Do we have some sort of genetic
predisposition to understand speech in a
certain way?
Beginnings of language acquisition
• What characteristics do children need to learn
for their native language?
1. Phonology
2. Syntax
3. Meaning
What do they need to learn?
In terms of phonology...
• Sound structure
• What does this include??
• Linguistically relevant sounds (i.e. are click
sounds relevant?)
• The number of sounds in language
(i.e. 44 in English)
What do they need to learn?
In terms of syntax and morphology...
• Grammar
• The type of language they are learning
1. Isolating?
2. Agglutinative?
Word order (i.e. verb order, etc.)
English: I know that I know it
French: Je sais que je le sais
What do they need to learn?
In terms of semantics...
• Word meaning
• How are certain concepts expressed in a
Ex. Colour words
words for snow (!)
Eskimos have 30 different words for snow!
The Beginnings of Language Acquisition
1. Learning before birth
2. Neonatal biases
3. Learning about native word stress
4. Prosodic bootstrapping
Learning before birth
• When does the auditory system start to develop during pregnancy?
It develops from the 5th month (i.e. the ears!) and is almost
complete by the 7th month.
How have we come to learn about this?
By measuring fetal heart rate,
by noticing movements as indirect signs of fetal interest
What are the indications for prenatal speech perception?
• Fetus prefers mother’s voice over other voices
• Fetus reacts to syllabus reversal: babi babi...biba
Thus, infants recognize language by its prosody from 0 months!
Neonatal Biases
• 2 ways to study them...
1. Near – Infrared spectroscopy
2. High amplitude sucking or else...
Neonates show more brain activation for speech than for other, similar
Neonates prefer their native language over other languages
2 was proved by which studies?
French vs. Russian (Mehler et al. 1988)
English vs. Italian (Moon et al. 1993)
Thus, babies use the overall prosody (rhythm, intonation) rather than single
What is the head turn preference procedure?
Word stress perception
• Most English words start with a strong / weak syllable? What do we
mean by this?
Water, calendar, Department, guitar, along, assign, about, important
• At what age do English learning babies know this?
• 9 months – Prosodic effect!: American babies prefer
listening to stress-initial words over stress-final words
• Is this the same for all languages??
➢NO! i.e. Spanish: no overall preference
initial stress less dominant than in English
CV-CV (náda ‘nothing’): preference for stress-initial
CV-CVC (jamón ‘ham’): preference for stress-final
Infants adapt to native word stress during the first year
Word boundary perception
• Word stress is used by infants for word boundary detection
at the age of...
- familiarisation with monosyllabic words (i.e. dog)
- Then, they have exposure to long passages where the
familiar words are also used
- Infants detect stress-initial words with two syllables
(hámlet) at 7 months
- At 7 months, overuse of stress leads to missegmen-tations:
the guitár is here  táris
- Infants detect stress-final words (guitár) at 10 months
• How many types?
• Prosodic bootstrapping
Infants use rhythmic and intonational properties (prosody) to
initialise learning in other linguistic areas (i.e. word learning)
They try out how the sounds of words are organised and this
is why we say that a good example of prosodic bootstrapping
the overuse of word stress segmentation!
Infants recognise their own name from 4 months
• Syntactic bootstrapping
Syntactic bootstrapping
• What is it?
The process of understanding phrase structure
• Does prosody help in identifying this structure?
Yes, clause boundaries are often (but not always) marked by
pauses, final syllable lengthening, pitch changes, etc.
• 7-month-old babies are sensitive to these markers
• Can you add the word boundaries (#) ?
Cinderella lived in a great big house,but it was
sort of dark because she had this mean, mean,
mean stepmother.
Syntactic bootstrapping
There’s head directionality as well...
What is it??
The place of the most important word in a sentence.
Languages can be head initial and head final
Head-initial: e.g. English, French, Italian
The verb is at the beginning of the verb phrase.
John [puts the book on the table].
Head-final: e.g. Turkish, Japanese
The verb is at the end of the verb phrase.
Jon wa [tēburu-no ue-ni hon-o oite iru].
Jon-[affix] table-[of] top-[by] book-[a] putting-[are]
• Ch. 2 from coursebook (esp. the studies my
• Think about it...
Do we have some sort of genetic
predisposition to understand speech in a
certain way?
Is there something about our ability to
perceive speech that is uniquely human?

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