24.4504, Review: Lang. Acquisition; Phonetics; Phonology: Boll-Avetisyan (2012)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-24-4504. Tue Nov 12 2013. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 24.4504, Review: Lang. Acquisition; Phonetics; Phonology: Boll-Avetisyan (2012)

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Date: Tue, 12 Nov 2013 08:13:37
From: Kevin Mendousse [k.mendousse at auckland.ac.nz]
Subject: Phonotactics and Its Acquisition, Representation, and Use

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4864.html

AUTHOR: Natalie  Boll-Avetisyan
TITLE: Phonotactics and Its Acquisition, Representation, and Use
SUBTITLE: An Experimental-Phonological Study
SERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation series
PUBLISHER: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Kevin Mendousse, University of Auckland

As indicated in the Acknowledgements (pp. xi-xiv), Phonotactics and Its
Acquisition, Representation, and Use: An Experimental-Phonological Study
originated as a PhD dissertation completed at Utrecht University, Netherlands,
under the supervision of René Kager. The study addresses a range of issues on
the acquisition and representation of phonotactic knowledge and how such
knowledge is put to use in speech processing; it will be of particular
interest to phonologists and psycholinguists working in the areas of speech
segmentation and lexical acquisition.

Within the first opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, “General Introduction” (pp.
1-16), both the purpose of the proposed study and its rationale are set out.
No language allows for a random combination of phonemes within words, and it
is well established that co-occurrence (im)possibilities between phonemes are
governed by language-specific constraints, i.e. phonotactic constraints.
Speakers of natural languages all possess reliable -- albeit mostly implicit
-- knowledge of such constraints, hence our ability to intuitively
discriminate between plausible and implausible combinations of phonemes in
both L1 and L2 (L2 phonotactic knowledge improving with advanced L2
proficiency). Unlike orthographic systems, however, the speech signal is
continuous and lacks well-defined cues to word boundaries, so how do listeners
nonetheless succeed in the seemingly effortless task of breaking down the
acoustic signal into lexical and sub-lexical units to access the words stored
in their mental lexicon? If lexical recognition were a prerequisite to speech
segmentation, language-learning infants, who lack lexical knowledge at the
onset, would logically be unable to initiate speech segmentation. Hence the
author’s hypotheses: speech segmentation must precede lexical acquisition; and
speakers must rely on cues other than lexical information in order to identify
word boundaries when processing speech. What these cues are and how they are
used to facilitate speech segmentation and lexical acquisition is precisely
the subject matter of the proposed investigation. To this end, the author
provides a brief review of literature on the form of phonotactic
representations in use as well as on the acquisition and source of phonotactic
knowledge, highlighting in particular the need to shed light on the following
questions: a) Can complex phonotactic representations such as OCP-Place -- a
typologically well-attested constraint within words restricting the
co-occurrence of non-adjacent homorganic consonants by extending across
intervening vowels -- facilitate speech segmentation and lexical acquisition?
b) Is the use of OCP-Place language-specific, and therefore acquired from the
input, or due to some innate universal perceptual bias? c) If acquired, is
such phonotactic knowledge sourced from the lexicon or continuous speech? d)
Is the acoustic signal processed by means of a trough- or chunk-based
segmentation strategy, the former requiring listeners to attend to low
transitional probabilities, the latter to high transitional probabilities? e)
In lexical acquisition, does knowledge of probabilistic phonotactics interact
with knowledge of syllable structure, which is known to affect speech

Subsequent chapters, which all form stand-alone studies in their own right,
report and comment in detail on both the methodology and results of a series
of artificial speech segmentation and nonword recall experiments designed to
address the above issues. Chapter 2, “Does the lexicon bootstrap phonotactics,
or vice versa?” (pp. 17-47), showcases an experiment drawing on an artificial
language containing trisyllabic /s/-vowel-/s/ sequences, which have a low
probability of occurrence in Dutch infant-directed continuous speech but are
over-represented in the infant-directed lexicon. Data indicate that Dutch L1
infants prefer locating word boundaries inside rather than outside such
phonemic clusters. No such segmentation preference, however, was found for
/p/-vowel-/p/ sequences, which are over-represented in both continuous speech
and the infant-directed lexicon. These results are consistent with a
trough-based segmentation strategy, which relies on cues from low probability
sequences for inserting word boundaries at dips in phoneme transitional
probability, and suggest that segmentation cues are indeed acquired from
continuous speech rather than from the lexicon.

Chapter 3, “OCP-Place in Speech Segmentation” (pp. 49-79), demonstrates that
the effects of OCP-Place on speech segmentation cannot be said to originate
from a universal functional bias against the ability to encode separately two
consonants with a shared place of articulation. Indeed, results from four
artificial language learning experiments indicate that, unlike OCP-Coronal,
OCP-Labial is effectively used by adult native listeners of Dutch as a cue for
speech segmentation. The Dutch lexicon is restricted only by the latter
constraint, which suggests that the use of OCP-Place as a segmentation cue in
speech processing is language-specifically correlated with Dutch phoneme
distribution and that this constraint is therefore acquired from the input.

Building on the above findings, Chapter 4, “OCP-Place for Speech Processing: A
Bias on Perception or Acquisition? The Case of Mandarin Chinese” (pp. 81-109),
provides supporting evidence of knowledge of OCP-Place as a
language-specifically acquired constraint. In particular, it shows that,
unlike the native Dutch-speaking informants in the previous chapter, Mandarin
Chinese native speakers -- whose lexicon is not restricted by OCP-Place -- do
not use this constraint as a speech segmentation cue, as would be predicted if
OCP were due to some universal functional or cognitive bias on acquisition.
Further data from three groups of Mandarin Chinese L2 learners of Dutch with
varying language proficiency and geographical learning settings (i.e. advanced
L2 learners of Dutch living in the Netherlands, advanced L2 learners of Dutch
living in China, beginning L2 learners of Dutch living in the Netherlands)
reveal that OCP-Place is only used as a segmentation cue by advanced L2
learners of Dutch who had acquired Dutch in the Netherlands. It follows that
the acquisition of OCP-Place as a speech segmentation cue in L2 requires both
advanced L2 proficiency and sufficient L2 exposure to native input.

Chapter 5, “Probabilistic Phonotactics in Lexical Acquisition: The Role of
Syllable Complexity” (pp. 111-137), reports on two experiments with adult
monolingual native speakers of Dutch, designed to assess whether knowledge of
markedness constraints on syllables modulates phonotactic probability effects
on lexical acquisition. By showing that the facilitory effect of high
probability phonotactics is significantly enhanced in the case of short-term
memory recognition tasks involving more complex syllable structures, results
suggest that probabilistic phonotactics and structural phonotactic knowledge
as part of a phonological grammar belong to two individual but interacting
knowledge components at the sub-lexical level.

Chapter 6, “Second Language Probabilistic Phonotactics and Syllable Structure
in Short-Term Memory Recognition” (pp. 139-165), provides further evidence on
the separate storage of the two aforementioned sub-lexical knowledge
components by demonstrating that these can be acquired independently of each
other. Indeed, results from a probed recognition task using phonotactically
legal monosyllabic nonwords manipulated for biphone frequency indicate that
Spanish and Japanese L2 learners of Dutch -- whose L1s allow for less complex
syllable structure than the target language (i.e. CVC in Japanese and CCVC in
Spanish vs CCCVCCC in Dutch) -- experienced facilitation of L2 biphone
frequency even in the case of biphone structures unattested in their
respective L1s. Such knowledge of n-phone probabilities was thus acquired
independently of their syllable context of occurrence.

Finally, Chapter 7, “General Conclusion” (pp. 167-176), summarizes previous
chapters with a focus on integrating their respective findings and discussing
their overall significance for phonology and developmental psychology. It
further addresses a number of issues for future investigation. In particular,
the chapter highlights the need to determine whether knowledge of both under-
and over-represented phonotactic patterns may, in fact, play different roles
in speech processing: “It might be that under-representations are more usable
in speech segmentation, whereas in lexical acquisition, a clear facilitation
comes from knowledge of over-represented patterns” (p. 173). The author also
calls for research into whether only knowledge of under-representations is
acquired from continuous speech in L1 and L2, or if over-represented
phonotactic patterns are also acquired in similar fashion.

Overall, Boll-Avetisyan’s study is as informed and innovative as it is
insightful and thought-provoking. It provides the reader with a deep
understanding of how complex abstract phonotactic representations are used in
speech segmentation and lexical acquisition, and how these are acquired in
both L1 and L2. The work’s scientific impact and significance rest on a strong
body of empirical evidence collected through creative experimentation, with
robust parameters designed to address original research questions.

As the author notes, despite the vast body of evidence for its role in speech
segmentation and lexical acquisition, “the question of how phonotactic
knowledge is actually put to use in speech processing has been heavily
neglected” by researchers (p. 4). The reasons are twofold: on the one hand
“psychologists often disregard the nature and complexity of linguistic
representations”, focussing instead on the mind’s inner working and learning
mechanisms; on the other hand “linguists tend to neglect the consequences of
the fact that linguistic representations need to be used in speech
processing”, referring instead to the internal structure and complexity of
linguistic systems (p. 4). Boll-Avetisyan’s research effectively bridges this

Boll-Avetisyan’s investigation extends both the scope and depth of the
literature on the role of phonotactics in speech segmentation and lexical
acquisition by showing that infants as well as monolingual and L2 adult
speakers draw on phonotactic knowledge of a more abstract and complex nature
than mere n-phone probabilities when segmenting continuous speech. Contrary to
predictions made by functionalist theories -- which, as a result of a claimed
universal bias on perception, predict that listeners can only process
sequences of homorganic consonants as separate elements by drawing on
additional information from the lexicon (pp. 171-172) -- , participants used
OCP as a cue for parsing an artificial language stripped of any such lexical
cues. This finding strongly suggests that knowledge of OCP as used in speech
segmentation is language specific and acquired from continuous speech rather
than from the lexicon.

Moreover, by showing that infants use their knowledge of under- but not
over-represented phoneme pairs in speech segmentation, Boll-Avetisyan’s study
provides new, compelling insight into the informativeness role of phonotactic
knowledge for the parsing of continuous speech: phoneme pairs occurring more
often within words than across word boundaries -- because speech consists of a
concatenation of words -- , there are fewer troughs than peaks in transitional
probability and so, in short, “it is more useful to attend to relatively few
troughs than to the much larger number of peaks in transitional probability
when segmenting speech” (p. 172). By further demonstrating that “the
facilitory effect of high probability on lexical acquisition increased with
increasing syllable complexity and vice-versa” (p. 172), Boll-Avetisyan’s
results support the hypothesis that speakers possess two separate but
interacting sub-lexical phonotactic knowledge components, one specialising in
probabilistic phonotactics and the other in structural phonotactics.

Given the complexity of the research undertaken and the statistical tools
used, it is remarkable that the accounts and analyses expounded are always
clear, relevant, effective and highly interesting. The author clearly has an
outstanding ability to formulate original, theoretically-informed hypotheses
based on previous literature and to subsequently put these to the test through
careful experimentation. This, in combination with frequent brief summary
reports and a text written to the highest academic standard -- if we except a
number of typographical and/or grammatical errors/inconsistencies -- , makes
the author's scholarship readily available to the intended readership as well
as to the wider linguistic community.

Dr Kevin Mendousse holds a PhD in linguistics and is currently a Senior
Lecturer in the School of European Languages and Literatures at the University
of Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate
courses in both French language and linguistics. He is the author of a number
of journal articles, conference papers and invited research seminars focusing
primarily on distinctive feature theory and markedness theory, as they apply
to the (morpho)phonology of French and/or English, as well as on the history
of linguistic ideas. His research interests also include a forthcoming book
translation of original linguistic research carried out on the Ua Pou dialect
of the Marquesan language.

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