Recognition and representation of function words in English-learning infants

Shi, R., Werker, J. F., & Cutler, A. (2006). Recognition and representation of function words in English-learning infants. Infancy, 10(2), 187-198. doi:10.1207/s15327078in1002_5.
We examined infants' recognition of functors and the accuracy of the representations that infants construct of the perceived word forms. Auditory stimuli were “Functor + Content Word” versus “Nonsense Functor + Content Word” sequences. Eight-, 11-, and 13-month-old infants heard both real functors and matched nonsense functors (prosodically analogous to their real counterparts but containing a segmental change). Results reveal that 13-month-olds recognized functors with attention to segmental detail. Eight-month-olds did not distinguish real versus nonsense functors. The performance of 11-month-olds fell in between that of the older and younger groups, consistent with an emerging recognition of real functors. The three age groups exhibited a clear developmental trend. We propose that in the earliest stages of vocabulary acquisition, function elements receive no segmentally detailed representations, but such representations are gradually constructed so that once vocabulary growth starts in earnest, fully specified functor representations are in place to support it.
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