ASA 127th Meeting M.I.T. 1994 June 6-10

5pSP41. The role of prosody in early sentence comprehension.

Michele E. Shady

Lou Ann Gerken

Dept. of Psychol., Park Hall, SUNY at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260

Research with young infants indicates that they prefer to listen to speech exhibiting exaggerated pitch contours [Fernald and Kuhl (1987)] and to utterances with pauses inserted at linguistic boundaries versus nonboundary positions. However, infant preference measures cannot tell us whether young learners actually use prosody to locate linguistic boundaries in the speech stream as some researchers have suggested [Jusczyk et al. (1992)]. To do this, the effects of prosody in the sentence comprehension of somewhat older learners were studied. Sentences were created with a DECTalk speech synthesizer and had rapid pitch changes either at a linguistic boundary (Find/the dog in the picture) or at a nonboundary (Find the/dog in the picture). Twenty-four to 26-month-olds heard either prosodically correct or incorrect sentences that told them to point to a named picture in a set of four. If children use prosody to locate linguistic boundaries during sentence comprehension, they should perform better for sentences in which pitch changes occurred at boundary positions. The results show that children performed significantly better for prosodically correct sentences (86% vs 48%). Thus it appears that by approximately 2 years of age, learners use prosody to locate linguistic units during sentence comprehension. [Work supported by NSF.]