AdvisorOhala, Diane K
Committee ChairOhala, Diane K
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThe primary claim of this dissertation is that children and adults process language in the same manner, meaning that when children are acquiring their first language what they are truly doing is perfecting their language processing abilities. Language acquisition and processing both start from the same place. Both work to find patterns in the signal that will, eventually, be paired with meaning. This dissertation argues that differences in how children and adults accomplish these tasks are one of degree and not kind. To show this, three experiments tested how adults and children responded to a conflict between the lexical and prosodic parse of an utterance. The participants’ response to this conflict reveals information about where they are in the language acquisition process. In these experiments, prosody was used to disambiguate phrases that can be interpreted either as a list of two items (e.g., fruit, salad) or as a single compound item (e.g., fruit-salad). Prosody was also made to conflict with the lexical parse of an utterance. When the word cactus is said with List Prosody two non-words /kæk/ and /tʌs/ result. When the words nail and key are said with Compound Prosody, the non-word nailkey is created. By exploiting the overlap between the prosodic system and the lexical system, it is possible to evaluate how language is being processed. The results show that adults tend to parse utterances based on the lexical content, and ignore ambiguities created by a conflict between the prosodic and the lexical interpretation of the phrase. In contrast, children tend to respond based on the prosody, making increasing use of the lexical content as they mature. When the same items are tested with abstract shapes rather than representational images, adults make greater use of prosody. This suggests that visual input plays a role in spoken word processing. The dissertation also proposes a modified model of spoken word recognition that accounts for the difference seen between the adults and the children, and for the effect of visual content. This model integrates phonetic details, prosodic content, lexical knowledge, visual content, and pragmatic understanding during spoken word recognition.