How do infants detect word boundaries in continuous speech?

For an infant learn to speak a language they must master the syntax, semantics and pragmatics of that language, as well as acquiring word meaning. Before any of this can be considered however, the infant must be able to detect word boundaries in order to identify individual words in a stream of speech, a perceptual task more difficult than one might first think. Adults will experience the complexity of the task when listening to a foreign language; all the words merge into one long stream so that it is hard to single out individual words. Infants are able to detect these word boundaries by extracting statistical information about the language they are hearing, this extraction made vastly easier by the presence of infant directed speech. It has been suggested that infant directed speech, which used to be known as ‘motherese’ helps babies to learn about language and thus detect word boundaries. Infant directed speech is the name for the way people seem to instinctively talk to babies. It has simplified sentence structures, longer pauses between words, sentences and syllables and more exaggerated intonation contours almost as though the speaker is patronising the baby. In infant directed speech, higher emphasis is placed on the end of words and on the finishing of a sentence which marks bits of continuous speech which are more important, giving babies information to help them segment. It has been shown that infants have a preference for this type of speech over adult directed speech and this has even been proven in newborns (Cooper & Aslin, 1990). The question to be answered is how they use the information to learn where word boundaries are, infant directed speech does not provide an explanation, it is simply the vehicle on which the information arrives. For more, visit

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