Prosody and Adults’ Learning of Syntactic Structure
Abstract: The role of prosody in adults’ acquisition of a miniature artificial language was examined in three experiments. In Experiment 1, learners heard and repeated prerecorded sentences of the language, and simultaneously saw corresponding referents, but did not see any printed words.
Learners received four study-test trials. Half the learners heard a “single word” presentation, in which each of the four words of each sentence was recorded with the falling contour associated with list-final position. Half heard a “phrase prosody” presentation — expected to aid learning — in which each two-word phrase was recorded as a phrasal unit, with the first two-word phrase of each sentence having a rising contour and the second two-word phrase having a falling contour. Half the participants were given a dialect with high-frequency markers expected to aid learning, and the other half a dialect with low-frequency markers. The phrase prosody presentation did not facilitate learning. Experiment 2 removed the reference field and provided six study-test trials. Phrase prosody here facilitated performance, primarily by increasing learners’ acceptance of correct sequences. Experiment 3 removed participants’ repetition as well as the reference field and found a strong effect of phrase prosody. We propose that prosody helps recognition of correct word pairs and may be especially useful when other cues to syntactic structure are either unavailable or cannot be exploited by the learner.