LingLang Lunch (4/30/2014): Jill Thorson (Brown University)

How intonation interacts with new and given information to guide attention

Toddlers are sensitive to native language rhythm and pitch patterns. From the beginnings of production, they approximate adult-like intonation contours and align them with appropriate semantic/pragmatic intentions. The motivation for our study is to investigate how English-acquiring 18-month-olds are guided by mappings from intonation to information structure during on-line reference resolution in a discourse. We ask whether specific pitch movements (deaccented/monotonal/bitonal) more systematically predict patterns of attention depending on the referring condition (new/given). Additionally, this experiment isolates the role of pitch in directing attention, keeping duration and intensity constant across conditions. Contrary to previous work, results show longer looking times to the target over a distractor in the deaccented condition if the referent is new to the discourse but not if it is given. Also, the bitonal pitch movement directs attention to the target even when it is given in the discourse. Thus, pitch type is interacting with new and given information in directing toddler attention. Analyzing how higher-level components combine to direct attention to a referent during discourse aids in explaining the mechanisms that are important for language and word learning.