Skip to main content

Article Category

News

Article available in the folowing languages:

Babies proving language prowess

Researchers in Germany have discovered that tiny tots, as young as three months of age, can automatically detect and learn complex dependencies between syllables in spoken language. Presented in the journal PNAS, the findings reveal a contrast between infants and adults, who c...

Researchers in Germany have discovered that tiny tots, as young as three months of age, can automatically detect and learn complex dependencies between syllables in spoken language. Presented in the journal PNAS, the findings reveal a contrast between infants and adults, who can only recognise the same dependencies when they have been asked to look for them. The results shed fresh light on how effective basic pitch discrimination is in the development of early language. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany investigated auditory mechanisms of language learning in infants to determine the ease and speed with which they can learn the fundamentals of language. The researchers observed that adults do not have more sophisticated language learning abilities, contradicting what most people have long believed. According to the team, a three-month-old baby outperforms adult learners with respect to extracting complex rules from spoken language. The infant subjects listened to a stream of syllables for 20 minutes while the researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the babies' brain responses. The syllables appeared in pairs and were split by a third syllable. 'Such dependencies between non-neighbouring elements are typical for natural languages and can be found in many grammatical constructions,' said lead author Dr Jutta Mueller the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. For example, she explained, in the sentence 'the boy always smiles', the third-person-suffix 's' of the verb is dependent on the noun 'boy'. In the study, this was reflected in the use of combinations like 'le' and 'bu' in sequences like 'le-wi-bu'. Dr Mueller went on to say that there are, however, combinations like 'le-wi-to' that appeared and where one of the syllables did not belong. 'EEG measurements showed us that the babies recognised this rule violation,' Dr Mueller said. The team also changed the tone of one syllable to a higher pitch at times. They found that only infants whose brains reacted to pitch changes in a more mature way could identify the syllable dependencies. The researchers also observed that adults were only able to react to the rule violations when explicitly asked to look for dependencies between the syllables. Commenting on the finding that automatic recognition ability is lost in adulthood, Dr Mueller said: 'What we found particularly interesting is that the small group of adults who did show evidence of rule learning also showed a stronger brain response to the pitch changes.' According to the researchers, the study provides insight into how children have the capacity to learn language quickly despite their very young age. The team also found a link between very basic auditory skills and sophisticated rule learning abilities. The researchers are currently examining whether differences the babies exhibited in response to pitch changes and in rule learning ability could impact language development.For more information, please visit:Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences:http://www.mpg.de/149614/kognition_neuroPNAS:http://www.pnas.org/

Countries

Germany