University of Pennsylvania
Universal and Language-specific Prosodic Processing
A key question in the psychology of language is how speech processing (i.e., speaking and listening) can be influenced by both language-universal and language-specific mechanisms. In the segmental domain, speech processing involves both universal constraints based on syllabic structures and patterning of vowels and consonants as well as strategies relevant to specific features of the mother tongue, such as transitional probabilities between syllables and coarticulatory word-onset variations. However, it is still unclear how language users exploit prosody. Of all components of language structure, prosody is arguably one of the most language-specific dimensions of speech, but very few attempts have been made to test whether prosody may still be processed in a similar way across languages. In this talk, I will present evidence from cross-language experiments to show how speakers of languages with different phonological systems (i.e., English and Mandarin Chinese) can use prosody to encode discourse information, predict linguistic content and use, and disambiguate syntactic structures. I will argue that prosodic processing involves a complex but subtle interplay of universal and language-specific structure.