Language acquisition begins before birth. Already in the last trimester the fetus begins to perceive certain features
of its mother tongue. The individual sounds are not yet recognizable in the vibrations that reach the ears, but prosodic
features like intonation, rhythm and stress are. This explains why newborns are receptive to prosodic information. Then,
starting at birth, the infant is exposed to the phonetic sounds of its native language. For German and Swiss German babies
these sounds are much more important than intonation or rhythm. This observation poses the question, at what point do
they learn to give more attention to the sounds than to rhythm and intonation.
In this project we ask, first, how German and Swiss German infants from 6 to 10 months old process the intonation of their mother tongue and that of a foreign language, and how strongly they weight this information in comparison to information about speech (phonetic) sounds. In the second part we investigate the extent to which the intonation contour helps children to identify individual words within the continuous speech signal.
The method we use for both experiments is called the 'Head Turn Preference Procedure' . It is based on children's tendency to direct their attention longer to things they find interesting than to things that don't interest them. The child sits on a parent's lap and hears various speech recordings presented from the right or the left side. Researchers then analyze the length of attention to the various stimuli.
Zahner, Katharina, Muna Pohl & Bettina Braun. Accepted. Pitch accent distribution in German infant directed speech. Proceedings of Interspeech 2015. Dresden, Germany.
Zahner, Katharina, Muna Schönhuber & Bettina Braun. 2015. The limits of metrical segmentation: intonation modulates infants' extraction of embedded trochees. Journal of Child Language. DOI 10.1017/S0305000915000744.
Braun, Bettina, Muna Pohl & Katharina Zahner. 2014. Speech segmentation is modulated by peak alignment: Evidence from German 10-month-olds. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Speech Prosody. Dublin, Ireland.
Leitung: Prof. Janet Grijzenhout, Prof. Claudia Diehl
Doctoral candidate: Monika Lindauer
The focus of the research project is on speakers who acquire a heritage language, i.e. the language of their parents that they acquire from birth on, as well as the dominant language of the country or region spoken outside their parental environment. These speakers are exposed to the dominant language either from birth on or slightly later during childhood. Thus, one can speak of simultaneous or successive bilingual child language acquisition. But the quantity of input of the surrounding dominant language increases continuously as the children get more and more integrated in the social structures of the host country.
Our study intends to examine and to compare the German language proficiency and acquisition processes among the following three groups:
Simultaneous bilingual language acquisition:
Children acquiring German and Turkish or German and Italian simultaneously as first languages from birth on
Successive bilingual language acquisition/child L2 acquisition:
Children acquiring only Turkish or Italian as first languages and German only later at the age of 3-4 years
Monolingual language acquisition:
Monolingual children acquiring only German as first language
The study of language proficiency in syntactic, morphosyntactic and prosodic domains of German among children between 3 and 9 years of age aims to unravel parallels and differences between these types of language acquisition. In order to investigate possible sensitive periods during the language acquisition process, several age groups will be tested considering the age of onset of acquisition of German. Also, the comparison of age groups before and after school entry will allow us to draw conclusions about the influence of increasing input of German via school instruction. A sentence completion test will examine the acquisition of verb placement in main and relative clauses as well as the acquisition of the definite article. The latter will also be analysed in combination with syllable structure and word stress in a picture description task. Additionally, sociolinguistic factors, such as exposure duration and the social network of the child will be surveyed on the basis of a parental questionnaire. Thereby we intend to find out how the quantity and quality of German input influences the children's language proficiency in German.
Director: Prof. Janet Grijzenhout
Doctoral candidate: Muna Schönhuber (née Pohl)
The project Perception of Phonological Contrasts
studied the acquisition of contrasts in speech sounds (phonemes) in German and Swiss German, and, in particular,
the plosives of both languages. By way of example: we want to find out how babies perceive small but important differences
in sound, such as in the contrast *pair* / *bear*. Standard German makes a distinction between aspirated and non-aspirated
plosives, while in Swiss German there is not laryngeal but rather a quantitative contrast, i. e., between long and short
plosives. We investigated which phonetic features infants perceive in the speech signal and use to construct the phoneme
inventory of their native language.
What concerned us particularly was the development in early phoneme perception. Currently popular theories assume that
newborns and infants, up to an age of about 8 months, can distinguish all or nearly all sound contrasts -- regardless of
whether these sounds are relevant for their native language or not. In the course of the first year of life the perceptual
system gradually adapts to the native language, so that at 10 to 12 months only those contrasts are distinguished that
carry meaning in that language.
In the BSL we tested whether German and Swiss German babies during very early acquisition (6 to 8 months) could
distinguish the contrasts of their mother tongue (the laryngeal contrast in Standard German and the quantitative
contrast in Swiss German), as well as the contrasts in the other language.
Further, we tested whether, in the perception of older infants (10 to 16 months), the ability to recognize the
non-native contrasts had diminished. That is to say, we wanted to see whether the Swiss German infants at 10 months
and older lose the ability to recognize the laryngeal contrasts that are meaningful in Standard German, and, vice versa,
whether the German babies have difficulties with the Swiss German length contrasts, which are not relevant for their own
Pohl, Muna. 2011. The perception of laryngeal and length contrasts in early language acquisition. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Konstanz.
Pohl, Muna & Janet Grijzenhout. 2010. Phrase-medial bilabial stops in three West-Germanic languages. Linguistische Berichte 222. 141-167.
Pohl, Muna & Janet Grijzenhout. 2009. The perception of laryngeal and length contrasts in stops by German infants and their parents. In G.M. Socarras (ed.), Philological Explorations, 31-46. Athens: Atiner.
Director: Prof. Janet Grijzenhout
Doctoral candidate: Anne Gwinner
The project "Sounds and syllables in different sentential intonations" is divided in two parts.
A perception experiment seeks to determine whether small children at 18, 27 and 36 months can distinguish between
complex and simple word onsets. Previous studies have shown that children often have difficulty in enunciating consonant
clusters. They solve the problem by dropping one of the consonants, so that, for example, *bread* turns into *bed*.
Thus, one might think that these children hear no difference between *bread* and *bed*, but this is not the case.
If we show them pictures corresponding to the two words and encourage them to find the bed, they look longer at the
picture of a bed than at the bread. In our study we will present pairs of words to children that, like *bread*/*bed*,
differ only in the initial sound, as well as words that contain small mispronunciations, like *b-yed* for *bed* or *beread*
for *bread*. We want to see if German-speaking children at 18, 27 and 36 months judge the mispronunciations as equally
severe and whether linguistic development can be seen with increasing age.
A production experiment investigates how nursery-age children store sentence intonation in the mental lexicon. In
particular, we want to see how much morphological detail the children can reproduce. A number of experiments have shown
that children prefer hearing a rhythmic pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables to other rhythmic
patterns. We want to see whether children omit unstressed syllables because they regard them as meaningless or because
they do not fit the preferred stress pattern. Further, we want to see if all unstressed syllables are treated equally or
if children distinguish among function words (articles), weak syllables in words (a-bout) and prefixes that have a
grammatical function (German ge- in past participles). To this end we will be observing the word and sentence production
of children growing up mono-lingual German and bilingual German-Italian. These languages allow interesting comparisons
because German has intonation patterns different from those of Italian, while German allows more complex word onsets
than does Italian.
For the first (perception) study with infants we will be using the Preferential
Looking Paradigm . For the second (production)
study with nursery children we use the Word Elicitation Task, in which particular words and sentences are elicited
from children with dolls and picture books.
Last Update: October 2017 – Webmaster: M. Schönhuber