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Cogn Psychol. 2010 Sep;61(2):177-99. doi: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05.001. Epub 2010 Jun 22.

Word segmentation with universal prosodic cues.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.


When listening to speech from one's native language, words seem to be well separated from one another, like beads on a string. When listening to a foreign language, in contrast, words seem almost impossible to extract, as if there was only one bead on the same string. This contrast reveals that there are language-specific cues to segmentation. The puzzle, however, is that infants must be endowed with a language-independent mechanism for segmentation, as they ultimately solve the segmentation problem for any native language. Here, we approach the acquisition problem by asking whether there are language-independent cues to segmentation that might be available to even adult learners who have already acquired a native language. We show that adult learners recognize words in connected speech when only prosodic cues to word-boundaries are given from languages unfamiliar to the participants. In both artificial and natural speech, adult English speakers, with no prior exposure to the test languages, readily recognized words in natural languages with critically different prosodic patterns, including French, Turkish and Hungarian. We suggest that, even though languages differ in their sound structures, they carry universal prosodic characteristics. Further, these language-invariant prosodic cues provide a universally accessible mechanism for finding words in connected speech. These cues may enable infants to start acquiring words in any language even before they are fine-tuned to the sound structure of their native language.

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