An Exploration of Rhythmic Grouping of Speech Sequences by French- and German-Learning Infants

Front Hum Neurosci. 2016 Jun 14;10:292. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00292. eCollection 2016.


Rhythm in music and speech can be characterized by a constellation of several acoustic cues. Individually, these cues have different effects on rhythmic perception: sequences of sounds alternating in duration are perceived as short-long pairs (weak-strong/iambic pattern), whereas sequences of sounds alternating in intensity or pitch are perceived as loud-soft, or high-low pairs (strong-weak/trochaic pattern). This perceptual bias-called the Iambic-Trochaic Law (ITL)-has been claimed to be an universal property of the auditory system applying in both the music and the language domains. Recent studies have shown that language experience can modulate the effects of the ITL on rhythmic perception of both speech and non-speech sequences in adults, and of non-speech sequences in 7.5-month-old infants. The goal of the present study was to explore whether language experience also modulates infants' grouping of speech. To do so, we presented sequences of syllables to monolingual French- and German-learning 7.5-month-olds. Using the Headturn Preference Procedure (HPP), we examined whether they were able to perceive a rhythmic structure in sequences of syllables that alternated in duration, pitch, or intensity. Our findings show that both French- and German-learning infants perceived a rhythmic structure when it was cued by duration or pitch but not intensity. Our findings also show differences in how these infants use duration and pitch cues to group syllable sequences, suggesting that pitch cues were the easier ones to use. Moreover, performance did not differ across languages, failing to reveal early language effects on rhythmic perception. These results contribute to our understanding of the origin of rhythmic perception and perceptual mechanisms shared across music and speech, which may bootstrap language acquisition.

Keywords: french-learning infants; german-learning infants; grouping; iambic-trochaic law; language acquisition; perceptual biases; prosody.