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Cognition. 2005 Jul;96(3):233-62. Epub 2005 Jan 6.

Stress changes the representational landscape: evidence from word segmentation.

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Department of Linguistics, University of Pittsburgh, 2806 Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.


Over the past couple of decades, research has established that infants are sensitive to the predominant stress pattern of their native language. However, the degree to which the stress pattern shapes infants' language development has yet to be fully determined. Whether stress is merely a cue to help organize the patterns of speech or whether it is an important part of the representation of speech sound sequences has still to be explored. Building on research in the areas of infant speech perception and segmentation, we asked how several months of exposure to the target language shapes infants' speech processing biases with respect to lexical stress. We hypothesize that infants represent stressed and unstressed syllables differently, and employed analyses of child-directed speech to show how this change to the representational landscape results in better distribution-based word segmentation as well as an advantage for stress-initial syllable sequences. A series of experiments then tested 9- and 7-month-old infants on their ability to use lexical stress without any other cues present to parse sequences from an artificial language. We found that infants adopted a stress-initial syllable strategy and that they appear to encode stress information as part of their proto-lexical representations. Together, the results of these studies suggest that stress information in the ambient language not only shapes how statistics are calculated over the speech input, but that it is also encoded in the representations of parsed speech sequences.

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