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20-02-2013 | Paediatrics | Article

Word order established using prosodic cues in bilingual infants

Abstract

Free abstract

medwireNews: Infants use pitch and word duration cues to discriminate between languages with opposite word orders, research shows.

Bilingual babies exposed to "object-verb" and "verb-object" languages are able to use prosodic information to differentiate between the two languages, say the study authors.

"By as early as seven months, babies are sensitive to these differences and use these as cues to tell the languages apart," co-author Janet Werker (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada) stated in a press release.

Published in Nature Communications, Werker and Judit Gervain (Université Paris Descartes, France) studied 24 7-month-old infants exposed to two grammar experiments.

In a previous experiment, Werker and Gervain showed that babies growing up in a monolingual home learn to understand word order by using the frequency of words in speech to understand their significance.

For babies in a bilingual home where the two languages have different word orders, they must use different learning strategies, explain the researchers.

The study examined whether bilingual infants growing up with a verb-object language (English), and an object-verb language (Japanese, Korean, Hindu/Punjabi, Farsi, or Turkish), used prosodic cues along with word frequency to discriminate between the typical orders of the two languages.

Twelve infants were exposed to object-verb prosody and prominent infrequent words were set to a high pitch (224 Hz) and non-prominent infrequent words to low pitch (200 Hz).

For the second set of 12 infants, the researchers used verb-object prosody, where prominent infrequent words were long in duration (144 ms) and the non-prominent frequent words were short (120 ms).

The bilingual infants were sensitive to both the pitch and duration cues, using the "relevant prosodic information as a cue to the corresponding order of frequent and infrequent terms."

The findings were observed across a variety of different English object-verb language pairs, which suggests the results are robust and generalizable, say the authors.

They also exposed monolingual infants to a prosody unfamiliar to them and found that basic word order preference defined by word frequency was already well established. In this experiment, word order preference was unaltered by changes in pitch and word duration.

"These results are crucial to our understanding of bilingual development, because they identify prosodic bootstrapping as a mechanism that bilingual infants use to solve the complex learning problem they encounter," write Werker and Gervain.

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