Linguistic constraints on statistical word segmentation: The role of consonants in Arabic and English

Itamar Kastner, Frans Adriaans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Statistical learning is often taken to lie at the heart of many cognitive tasks, including the acquisition of language. One particular task in which probabilistic models have achieved considerable success is the segmentation of speech into words. However, these models have mostly been tested against English data, and as a result little is known about how a statistical learning mechanism copes with input regularities that arise from the structural properties of different languages. This study focuses on statistical word segmentation in Arabic, a Semitic language in which words are built around consonantal roots. We hypothesize that segmentation in such languages is facilitated by tracking consonant distributions independently from intervening vowels. Previous studies have shown that human learners can track consonant probabilities across intervening vowels in artificial languages, but it is unknown to what extent this ability would be beneficial in the segmentation of natural language. We assessed the performance of a Bayesian segmentation model on English and Arabic, comparing consonant‐only representations with full representations. In addition, we examined to what extent structurally different proto‐lexicons reflect adult language. The results suggest that for a child learning a Semitic language, separating consonants from vowels is beneficial for segmentation. These findings indicate that probabilistic models require appropriate linguistic representations in order to effectively meet the challenges of language acquisition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)494-518
JournalCognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal
Early online date26 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • statistical learning
  • word segmentation
  • Arabic
  • language acquisition
  • morphology


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