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When too many vowels impede language processing: The case of Danish

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Cross-linguistic studies of early vocabulary acquisition have shown that despite a general similarity in developmental patterns, different languages are learned at different rates1,6. Danish-learning children, for instance, lag behind a number of other languages in their receptive vocabulary development, knowing about 100 fewer words at age 1;3 than children acquiring other languages. This finding has generally been attributed to the complex phonetic structure of Danish, characterized by a uniquely large inventory of vowel-like sounds. This results in indistinct syllable and word boundaries, which might hinder word segmentation and acquisition1-5. To explore this hypothesis empirically, we used online measures of language processing to investigate to what extent contoids (obstruents and nasal/lateral consonants) and vocoids (vowels and semivowels) play a differential effect on processing words in context. Using the looking-while-listening procedure7, we measured accuracy and latency of children’s gaze at yoked pairs of pictures as they listened to speech naming one of the two objects on screen. As stimuli, we selected frequently occurring Danish nouns and child-directed expressions with different vocoid-to-contoid ratios, yielding four experimental conditions in which target words and carrier phrases varied from more “consonantal” to more “vowel-like”. We hypothesized that if a higher ratio of vocoids makes word segmentation (hence processing) harder, then we would expect lower accuracy and longer processing times with vocalic target words, especially in the ‘vocoid-carrier-phrase plus vocoid-target’ condition. Our results point indeed to a differential effect of contoids and vocoids on language processing in Danish. A higher rate of vowel-like sounds in a sentence results in lower accuracy and delayed response in word recognition. These outcomes constitute early empirical evidence supporting the possibility that a complicated phonetic structure might be the reason for the observed delay in Danish-learning children’s vocabulary development.

(1) Bleses, D., Vach, W., Slott, M., Wehberg, S., Thomsen, P., Madsen, T. & Basbøll, H. (2008). Early vocabulary development in Danish and other languages: a CDI-based comparison. Journal of Child Language 35, 619–50.
(2) Basbøll, H. (2005). The phonology of Danish. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(3) Bleses, D., Basbøll, H. & Vach, W. (2011). Is Danish difficult to acquire? Evidence from Nordic past tense studies. Language and CognitiveProcesses, 26(8), 1193-1231.
(4) Bleses, D. & Basbøll, H. (2004). The Danish sound structure – Implications for language acquisition in normal and hearing impaired populations.In E. Schmidt, U. Mikkelsen, I. Post, J. B. Simonsen & K. Fruensgaard (eds), Brain, Hearing and Learning. 20th Danavox Symposium, 2003,165–90. Copenhagen: Holmen Center Tryk.
(5) Trecca, F., Bleses, D., Christiansen, M. H., Basbøll, H., Højen, A., Madsen, T. O., & Andersen, S. R. (2014). The Effect of Vocalic vs.Consonantal Phonetic Structure on Language Segmentability: the Case of Danish. Poster session presented at IASCL - International Congress forthe Study of Child Language, Amsterdam, Holland.
(6) Dale, P. & Goodman, J. (2005). Commonality and individual differences in vocabulary growth. In M. Tomasello & D. I. Slobin (eds), Beyondnature–nurture. Essays in honor of Elizabeth Bates, 41–80. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
(7) Fernald, A., Zangl, R., Portillo, A. L., & Marchman, V. A. (2008). Looking while listening: Using eye movements to monitor spoken languagecomprehension by infants and young children. In I. Sekerina, E. Fernández, & H. Clahsen (Eds.), Language processing in children. Benjamins:Amsterdam.
Udgivelsesårnov. 2015
StatusUdgivet - nov. 2015
Eksternt udgivetJa
Begivenhed40th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development - Boston, USA
Varighed: 13 nov. 201515 nov. 2015


Konference40th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development

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