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Universal and Specific Properties of a Uniquely Human Competence. Tools to study language acquisition in early infancy: Brain and behavioural studies.


Knowledge on functional-anatomical prerequisites to acquire language has grown exponentially due to the discovery of behavioural methods and the development of high resolution functional imaging tools. The latter link behaviour to physiological brain proce sses and define areas essential for the proficiency in a unique human competence: language. In adults, knowledge on cerebral processes mandatory for language competence has greatly improved. This rapidly increasing knowledge allows for the description of a model integrating behavioural and physiological findings of how the proficient speaker masters language. However, to understand the uniqueness of human language it is imperative to understand how human infants acquire syntax and how the child learns to ha ndle the more mysterious semantic properties of a specific language. Psycholinguists must acknowledge that acquisition begins at birth when some of the prosodic and phonological properties are already set. We must also explore how and when lexical and synt actic properties are learned and we have to address the question how signals from the infant brain allow for an extension of the adult functional anatomical findings to infants. Our consortium has sketched a series of studies to clarify these issues by int egrating psychologists, physiologists, linguists, and experts on brain imaging for a deeper understanding of the infants brain function. This multidisciplinary approach is chosen since an investigation of language in the infant necessitates modifications i n experimental design, data acquisition, and analysis. To unravel the human uniqueness we take the challenge to analyse signals from a rapidly developing brain, where plasticity is the rule rather than the exception. We aim at an understanding of language competence by enhancing our knowledge on the development within the first months of life. Thus we address the question what it means to be human by investigating a uniquely human competence: language.

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