Pauses matter: Rule-learning in children

  • Anika van der Klis orcid logo (Utrecht University)
  • Rianne van Lieburg (University of Antwerp)
  • Lisa Lai-Shen Cheng (Leiden University)
  • Clara Cecilia Levelt (Leiden University)


Language learners have to both segment words and discover grammatical rules connecting those words in sentences. In adult listeners, the presence of a prosodic cue in the speech stream, for example, a pause, appears to facilitate rule-learning of non-adjacent dependencies of the form AiXCi (Peña et al., 2002). Only when listening to the artificial language containing pauses, could participants identify rule-words of the form AiAjCi or AiCjCi, where intervening syllables were moved from A- or C-positions. Frost and Monaghan (2016) found in a similar study that participants who were tested with novel, rather than moved, intervening syllables in AiXCi items showed rule-learning even when the familiarisation stream contained no pauses. The present study re-examines the facilitative effect of pauses in discovering structural rules in speech in a novel population: children aged 7-11. We used the same artificial speech stimuli as Peña et al. (2002) and tested children in both a moved-syllable and novel-syllable forced-choice task. The results of 140 children show that pauses provide a facilitative effect on rule-learning – also for young learners. Regardless of syllable types, only children who listened to the familiarisation stream containing pauses chose words following the rule above chance-level.

Keywords: school-aged children, prosody, non-adjacent dependencies, statistical learning, language acquisition, artificial grammar learning

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Published on
03 Mar 2023
Peer Reviewed