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Volume 13 Issue 2 (March 2010), Pages 265-406

Testing the limits of statistical learning for word segmentation (pages 339-345)


Past research has demonstrated that infants can rapidly extract syllable distribution information from an artificial language and use this knowledge to infer likely word boundaries in speech. However, artificial languages are extremely simplified with respect to natural language. In this study, we ask whether infants’ ability to track transitional probabilities between syllables in an artificial language can scale up to the challenge of natural language. We do so by testing both 5.5‐ and 8‐month‐olds’ ability to segment an artificial language containing four words of uniform length (all CVCV) or four words of varying length (two CVCV, two CVCVCV). The transitional probability cues to word boundaries were held equal across the two languages. Both age groups segmented the language containing words of uniform length, demonstrating that even 5.5‐month‐olds are extremely sensitive to the conditional probabilities in their environment. However, neither age group succeeded in segmenting the language containing words of varying length, despite the fact that the transitional probability cues defining word boundaries were equally strong in the two languages. We conclude that infants’ statistical learning abilities may not be as robust as earlier studies have suggested.

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