Um… and uh… clues

Apr 15, 2011 by

Linguists have often wondered how children manage to learn their native language from exposure to adult speech that contains so much noise: hesitations, restarts, mumbling and other types of disfluency. But recent research published in the journal Developmental Science suggests that such disfluency can be not just a hindering but a helping element too.

A study conducted by Richard Aslin, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, and his team shows that toddlers learn to associate disfluences in adult speech with unusual words. Prof. Aslin explains:

“In order to understand speech, babies (and adults, too) are constantly generating predictions of what the next word is going to be. Toddlers have learned that when adults have disfluencies it is usually followed by an unusual word.”

In the experiment, each toddler was seated on his or her mother’s lap and watched a screen with two images. One image was a familiar object like a bed, while the other showed an unfamiliar, made-up object.

The toddlers heard a recorded voice speak a simple fluent sentence, or a sentence with some hesitation thrown in (hear the two types of sentences here).

As those sentences were being played, a special camera was tracking the toddlers’ eye movement. The researchers found that at the end of a fluent sentence, the kids would look at the object that was mentioned, but if the voice stumbled, they looked immediately towards the unfamiliar object, even before it had been named. This is because kids were making a subconscious inference that when someone has difficulty making a word they are most likely referring to an object that is rare.

Unlike some other clues that children seem to be pre-programmed to look for and that are unlearnable, this inference is something that children learn in the process of language acquisition. The youngest participants in Aslin’s study didn’t know that disfluencies precede unknown words. But the 2 1/2-year-olds had figured this out: “uh” means that unfamiliar information will probably follow.

So what has long been considered to be just noise and not useful information may turn to be otherwise after all.

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