Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS
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The identification of words in continuous speech, known as speech segmentation, is a critical early step in language acquisition. This process is partially supported by statistical learning, the ability to extract patterns from the environment. Given that speech segmentation represents a potential bottleneck for language acquisition, patterns in speech may be extracted very rapidly, without extensive exposure. This hypothesis was examined by exposing participants to continuous speech streams composed of novel repeating nonsense words. Learning was measured on-line using a reaction time task. After merely one exposure to an embedded novel word, learners demonstrated significant learning effects, as revealed by faster responses to predictable than to unpredictable syllables. These results demonstrate that learners gained sensitivity to the statistical structure of unfamiliar speech on a very rapid timescale. This ability may play an essential role in early stages of language acquisition, allowing learners to rapidly identify word candidates and "break in" to an unfamiliar language.