Exploring the "anchor word" effect in infants: Segmentation and categorisation of speech with and without high frequency words

Frost, R. L. A., Dunn, K., Christiansen, M. H., Gómez, R. L., & Monaghan, P. (2020). Exploring the "anchor word" effect in infants: Segmentation and categorisation of speech with and without high frequency words. PLoS One, 15(12): e0243436. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0243436.
High frequency words play a key role in language acquisition, with recent work suggesting they may serve both speech segmentation and lexical categorisation. However, it is not yet known whether infants can detect novel high frequency words in continuous speech, nor whether they can use them to help learning for segmentation and categorisation at the same time. For instance, when hearing “you eat the biscuit”, can children use the high-frequency words “you” and “the” to segment out “eat” and “biscuit”, and determine their respective lexical categories? We tested this in two experiments. In Experiment 1, we familiarised 12-month-old infants with continuous artificial speech comprising repetitions of target words, which were preceded by high-frequency marker words that distinguished the targets into two distributional categories. In Experiment 2, we repeated the task using the same language but with additional phonological cues to word and category structure. In both studies, we measured learning with head-turn preference tests of segmentation and categorisation, and compared performance against a control group that heard the artificial speech without the marker words (i.e., just the targets). There was no evidence that high frequency words helped either speech segmentation or grammatical categorisation. However, segmentation was seen to improve when the distributional information was supplemented with phonological cues (Experiment 2). In both experiments, exploratory analysis indicated that infants’ looking behaviour was related to their linguistic maturity (indexed by infants’ vocabulary scores) with infants with high versus low vocabulary scores displaying novelty and familiarity preferences, respectively. We propose that high-frequency words must reach a critical threshold of familiarity before they can be of significant benefit to learning.
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