Speech Prosody 2014

The role of intonation in early word recognition and learning

Jill C. Thorson and James L. Morgan
The motivation for our study is to investigate how English-acquiring toddlers are guided by the mapping between intonation and information structure during on-line reference resolution and in novel word learning tasks. We ask whether specific pitch movements (deaccented, monotonal, bitonal) more systematically predict patterns of attention and subsequent novel word learning abilities depending on the referring or learning condition (new, given, contrastive). Experiment 1 examines the attentional patterns of 18-month-old toddlers when referents are either new or given in the discourse, and carry one of the three pitch accent types. Contrary to previous work, results show increased attention to the target in the deaccented condition if the referent is new to the discourse. Also, both monotonal and bitonal pitch movements direct attention to the target even when the target is given. Thus, pitch type interacts with information structure in directing toddler attention. Experiment 2 tests two-year-olds in a novel word learning task, varying pitch type and contrastiveness during learning. Preliminary results show that learning is aided when the novel word is introduced in contrast to a previous referent. Together, these two experiments demonstrate the role of pitch type and information structure in guiding attention and aiding early word learning.