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Unformatted text preview: The Roots of the Early Vocabulary in Infants Learning From Speech Daniel Swingley University of Pennsylvania ABSTRACT Psychologists have known for over 20 years that infants begin learning the speech-sound categories of their language during the first 12 months of life. This fact has dominated researchers thinking about how language acquisition begins, although the relevance of this learning to the childs progress in language acquisition has never been clear. Recently, views of the role of infancy in lan- guage acquisition have begun to change, with a new focus on the development of the vocabulary. Infants learning of speech-sound categories and infants abilities to extract regularities in the speech stream allow learning of the auditory forms of many words. These word forms then become the foundation of the early vocabulary, support childrens learning of the languages phonological system, and contribute to the discovery of grammar. KEYWORDS language development; language acquisition; infant learning; phonology Infants begin life hearing plenty of speech but grasping none of the words. At first, their understanding of language is limited to the universal songs of emotion in speech, like the graceful tones mothers produce to soothe (Fernald, 1992). To make progress in learning their own language, whether that be English or Ewe, infants must go beyond the broad melodies of speech and break down spoken language into its component parts, like the words that make up sentences and the consonants and vowels that make up words. A remarkable advance of 20th-century psy- chology was the discovery that, even before their first birthday, infants make considerable headway in one part of this analysis, the learning of their languages speech sounds. Some speech- sound differences infants can initially tell apart become indis- tinguishable if they are not used in the parents language, while infants perception of sounds used in the parental language is enhanced (e.g., Kuhl et al., 2008). For example, 6-month-old English learners can discriminate similar-sounding Hindi con- sonants not found in English, but lose this ability by 12 months (Werker & Tees, 1984). Such changes reflect infants ability to categorize speech and are viewed as beneficial, because they suggest that children are focusing on just the distinctions they need to distinguish words in their language. Infants discovery of phonetic (speech-sound) categories is impressive, particularly given the poor performance of computer systems designed to interpret spoken language. Demonstrations of infants perceptual talents have been interpreted as showing that infants are perfectly adapted listeners, biologically pre- disposed to interpret the sounds of human languages (Eimas, Siqueland, Jusczyk, & Vigorito, 1971). However, many have doubted the relevance of infant perception studies to the broader course of language acquisition. Once children start to talk, their pronunciation is often variable and inaccurate, and children...
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This note was uploaded on 02/13/2012 for the course PSYC 2000 taught by Professor Munson during the Fall '10 term at LSU.
- Fall '10