SPOKEN WORD ACCESS PROCESSES (SWAP)

May 29-31, 2000
Nijmegen, The Netherlands

The role of syllable structure in lexical segmentation: Helping listeners avoid mondegreens

Alain Content (1), Nicolas Dumay (1), Uli Frauenfelder (2)

(1) Laboratoire de Psychologie Expérimentale, Université libre de Bruxelles
(2) Laboratoire de Psycholinguistique Expérimentale, Université de Genève

Because of the continuous nature of speech, and of the absence of clear and salient word boundary information, any sequence of phonemes or syllables is compatible with multiple lexical interpretations. Therefore, one important challenge for theories of word recognition is to determine how the listener recovers the intended lexical segmentation. In this talk, we argue that syllable structure may provide one source of constraint on lexical segmentation. More specifically, we propose that syllable onsets constitute potential alignment points for the mapping process.

Our research started from an exploration of listeners intuitions about syllable structure, using explicit syllable segmentation tasks. In contrast to the widely held belief that syllable structure is salient and unambiguous in French, we observed that even for the simplest structures, CVCV words, listeners do not consistently assign the intervocalic consonant to the second syllable. Interestingly, most of the variability was related to first-syllable offset, while participants generally agreed on the location of the onset of the second syllable, suggesting that syllable onsets might correspond to more reliable and salient cues. 

To test the hypothesis that syllable onsets are used as alignment points for lexical mapping, we examined word spotting performance, manipulating the match between targets initial or final consonant and syllable boundaries. As predicted, the results showed a significant mismatch cost at initial position, and a small and non-significant cost for the final position. Other experiments currently underway using the cross-modal repetition priming technique provide further tests of the predominant role of syllable onsets.

Any theory that attributes a role to syllable structure in speech perception must deal with the issue of resyllabification in continuous speech. In another set of studies, we examined the nature of acoustic/phonetic cues to word boundaries in lexically ambiguous sequences, and assessed their influence on syllabification and in online lexical segmentation. Systematic durational variations were observed for obstruent-liquid clusters, but not for /s/ + obstruent clusters. When present, acoustic/phonetic cues influenced both syllabification choices and word spotting latencies.

Finally, we contrast our syllable onset segmentation heuristic with other views about the perceptual role of syllabic structure, and speculate on the complementary role of syllable onsets, of other stimulus-based cues such as rhythmic and prosodic information and of lexical competition in the process of lexical segmentation.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Content, Alain / Dumay, Nicolas / Frauenfelder, Uli (2000): "The role of syllable structure in lexical segmentation: Helping listeners avoid mondegreens", In SWAP-2000, 39-42.