English speaking pre-schoolers can use phrasal prosody for syntactic parsing

Alex de Carvalho, Jeffrey Lidz, Lyn Tieu, Tonia Bleam, Anne Christophe

This study tested American preschoolers’ ability to use phrasal prosody to constrain their syntactic analysis of locally ambiguous sentences containing noun/verb homophones (e.g., [The baby flies] [hide in the shadows] vs [The baby] [flies his kite], brackets indicate prosodic boundaries). The words following the homophone were masked, such that prosodic cues were the only disambiguating information. In an oral completion task, 4- to 5-year-olds successfully exploited the sentence’s prosodic structure to assign the appropriate syntactic category to the target word, mirroring previous results in French (but challenging previous English-language results) and providing cross-linguistic evidence for the role of phrasal prosody in children’s syntactic analysis.