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Front Psychol. 2019 Jan 30;10:80. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00080. eCollection 2019.

Children Probably Store Short Rather Than Frequent or Predictable Chunks: Quantitative Evidence From a Corpus Study.

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Department of Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Psycholinguistics Research Center, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium.


One of the tasks faced by young children is the segmentation of a continuous stream of speech into discrete linguistic units. Early in development, syllables emerge as perceptual primitives, and the wholesale storage of syllable chunks is one possible strategy for bootstrapping the segmentation process. Here, we investigate what types of chunks children store. Our method involves selecting syllabified utterances from corpora of child-directed speech, which we vary according to (a) their length in syllables, (b) the mutual predictability of their syllables, and (c) their frequency. We then use the number of utterances within which words are contained to predict the time course of word learning, arguing that utterances which perform well at this task are also more likely to be stored, by young children, as undersegmented chunks. Our results show that short utterances are best-suited for predicting when children acquire the words contained within them, although the effect is rather small. Beyond this, we also find that short utterances are the most likely to correspond to words. Together, the two findings suggest that children may not store many complete utterances as undersegmented chunks, with most of the units that children store as hypothesized words corresponding to actual words. However, dovetailing with an item-based account of language-acquisition, when children do store undersegmented chunks, these are likely to be short sequences-not frequent or internally predictable multi-word chunks. We end by discussing implications for work on formulaic multi-word sequences.


age of first production; chunks; formulaic language; multi-word units; segmentation; undersegmentation

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