The acquisition of syntax

One of the most important problems facing children when they are learning their native language is extracting word boundaries from a continuous speech signal.  There are no universal or systematic cues that can be used to achieve this.  Even once the words have been isolated, they must still be linked to their referents in the world.  A chicken-and-egg problem arises: Discovering the meaning of words is facilitated by knowing the syntax of the language but, since syntax defines the relations between words within sentences, learning syntax requires discovering the meaning of the words involved.  We believe that the phonological onset hypothesis solves this problem of “word meaning – syntax” circularity.  This hypothesis suggests that low-level phonological cues present in the raw speech signal play a key role in the initial stages of language acquisition.  The two cues that we are most interested in are prosody (i.e., variations in rhythm and intonation) and parts of speech (e.g., indefinite articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, etc.)  (See: Christophe, Millotte, Bernal & Lidz, 2008). Behavioral experiments with infants, children and adults attempt to provide a better understanding of the roles of i) word segmentation of sentences, ii) verb and noun identification (Bernal, Lidz, Millotte & Christophe, 2007) and iii) on-line construction of syntactic structure and analysis of syntax (Millotte, Wales, & Christophe, 2007; Millotte, René, Wales, & Christophe, 2008).