Prosody facilitates learning the word order in a new language

Cognition. 2021 Aug;213:104686. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104686. Epub 2021 Jun 18.


One of the prominent ideas developed by Jacques Mehler and his colleagues was that perceptual tuning, present from birth on, enables infants, and language learners in general, to extract regularities from speech input. Here we discuss language learners'' ability to extract basic word order (VO or OV) structure from prosodic regularities in a language. The two are closely related: in phonological phrases of VO languages, the most prominent word is the rightmost one, and in OV languages, it is the leftmost one. In speech, this prominence is realized as extended duration, or as elevated pitch, sometimes combined with changes in intensity. When learning the first (L1) or the second language (L2), exposure to relevant rhythmic structure elicits implicit learning about syntactic structure, including the basic word order. However, it remains unclear whether triggering the learning process requires a certain level of familiarity with the relevant rhythm. It is moreover unknown whether prosodic information can help L2 learners to extract and learn the vocabulary of a new language. We tested Spanish- and Italian-speaking adults' ability to learn words from an artificial language with either non-native OV or native VO word order. The results show that learners used prosodic information to identify the most prominent words in short utterances when the artificial language was similar to the native language, with duration-based prominence in prosody and a VO word order. In contrast, when the artificial language had a non-native prominence marked by pitch alternations and an OV word order, prominent words were learned only after a three-day exposure to the relevant rhythmic structure. Thus, for adult L2 learners, only repeated exposure to the relevant prosody elicited learning new words from an unknown language with non-native prosodic marking, indicating that, with familiarity, prosodic cues can facilitate learning in L2.

Keywords: Exposure; L2 learning; Prosodic cues; Prosody; Word order.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development
  • Language*
  • Learning
  • Speech
  • Speech Perception*