Chapter 3. Early bootstrapping of syntactic acquisition

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Infants acquiring language have to learn about the lexicon, the phonology, and the syntax of their native language, among others. For each of these domains, being able to rely on knowledge from the other domains would simplify the learner’s task. For instance, having access to words and their meaning should help infants to learn about syntax, but learning about the meaning of words would be greatly facilitated if infants had access to some aspects of syntactic structure (Gleitman 1990). This chapter focuses on how phrasal prosody and function words may interact during early acquisition. Experimental results show that infants have access to intermediate prosodic phrases (phonological phrases) during the first year of life, and use these to constrain lexical segmentation. In addition, by two years of age they can exploit function words to infer the syntactic category of unknown content words (nouns vs verbs) and guess their plausible meaning (object vs action). We speculate on how infants may build a partial syntactic structure, the ‘syntactic skeleton’, by relying on both phonological phrase boundaries and function words, and present adult results strengthening the plausibility of this hypothesis.


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