The perception of relevant surface cues shapes language development : evidence from typical and atypical populations

Abstract : The purpose of this work is to explore how infants perceive surface features of language at different levels of processing. Specifically, in both typical and atypical populations, we examined 1) the processing of low-level auditory cues and its relationship with later language outcomes and 2) the sensitivity to word frequency to create abstract linguistic representations of lexical categories and their relative word order. Accordingly to bootstrapping models learners are able to extract abstract, structural and hence directly unobservable properties of the target language from perceptually available surface cues in the input that correlate with the underlying structure. Indeed, infants are sensitive to certain acoustic and phonological properties of the speech input, which in turn correlate with specific grammatical/syntactic structures. In order to map the link between the perception of these low-level, surface cues and more abstract grammatical knowledge, this work is organized in two main parts. In the first part, two longitudinal studies are reported. Each infant received an auditory discrimination threshold task (using the rapid auditory processing paradigm) followed by a habituation/visual novelty detection task used as a control for general cognitive skills. The auditory discrimination threshold was evaluated using non-linguistic (tones) sounds in one cohort of infants and linguistic sounds (syllables) in another cohort of infants at 9 months in order to investigate the language-specificity of the process within the auditory modality. Subsequently, infants' vocabulary was assessed at 12-14-18 and 24 months and a cognitive test (Mullen scale) was performed at 18-20 months as another control measure for early processing competence. Results show that early processing abilities are predictive of later vocabulary size in typical infants. Importantly, atypical participants exhibited slower and less efficient processing abilities in both visual and acoustic modality. In the second part, the role of word frequency in bootstrapping the basic lexical categories of function and content words and their relative order is explored. The two lexical categories differ in their linguistic functions, phonological makeup and frequency of occurrence. Thus, their frequency-based discrimination could constitute a powerful initial mechanism for infants to acquire the basic building blocks of language. As functors constitute closed classes, while content words come in open classes, we examined whether 8 month-old French monolinguals relied on word frequency to categorize and track functors as non-replaceable items in a closed class, and content words as freely replaceable items in open classes. In five artificial grammar-learning experiments we have found that infants treat frequent words as belonging to closed classes, and infrequent words as belonging to open classes and they map the relative order of these categories onto the basic word order of their native language, French, a functor-initial language. Importantly, atypical participants showed lower ability of discrimination, encoding and memory when compared to typically developing peers. Overall this work contributes to a better understanding of the perceptual abilities that directly contribute to language development. Moreover, it proposes possible behavioural markers that can be potentially useful in the early identification of atypical learners.
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Caterina Marino. The perception of relevant surface cues shapes language development : evidence from typical and atypical populations. Cognitive Sciences. Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, 2018. English. ⟨NNT : 2018USPCB174⟩. ⟨tel-02179186⟩

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