Sunday, April 13, 2008

Boundaries and experiments

Just came across this paper, "Finding Words and Rules in a Speech Stream: Functional Differences Between Vowels and Consonants", in reading Cognitive Daily over at scienceblogs.com. CogDaily's summary is good, if you don't have access to the full article, with this being the core:
How do babies learn where one word ends and the next one begins? A group of researchers including Luca Bonatti, Marina Nespor, Jacques Mehler, and Juan Toro, believes it has identified a key pattern that works in a wide range of languages: language learners look to patterns in the consonants for information about where words start and end; they look to vowels to understand the role of words in a sentence.
I don't doubt their conclusion that "listeners look to vowels and consonants for different types of information", but I can already hear various colleagues screaming that the leap from this nicely-designed but small experiment to such fundamentals of language learning is way too big, even drawing on this group's earlier related work. I'll hear that this is squeezing a river of blood from one little dried-up turnip.

The question is, I suppose, how much weight you'd be willing to place on these results and what kind of work you'd want to see to bridge the remaining gap to early L1 acquisition of word boundaries in human language.

Image from this website. (No endorsement naturally, but it's a nice image.)

3 comments:

Adam Ussishkin said...

An interesting way to think about a division of labor between consonants and vowels! And of course, the claim brings Semitic to mind... :-)

TootsNYC said...

"How do babies learn where one word ends and the next one begins? "

I can't speak about their research, etc., bcs my approach to language is strictly as a user.

But this is the part I find most baffling when I try to use my rudimentary German w/ a native Deutsch speaker.

Not only is their vocabulary so much huger than mine, but I can't easily tell where a word ends and the next begins, if they're speaking rapidly and fluently.

Mr. Verb said...

And of course this runs counter to the stereotype that Germans are clearer about word boundaries. Another myth.