Babies' ability to detect complex rules in language outshines that of adults: study

Using electroencephalography, babies' brain responses to spoken language were recorded. Credit: MPI CBS

New research examining auditory mechanisms of language learning in babies has revealed that infants as young as three months of age are able to automatically detect and learn complex dependencies between syllables in spoken language. By contrast, adults only recognised the same dependencies when asked to actively search for them. The study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig also highlights the important role of basic pitch discrimination abilities for early language development.

The speed and apparent ease with which young infants learn the basics of a language regularly astound parents and scientists alike. Of course, adults are usually assumed to have the edge in sophisticated language learning. However, scientists Jutta Mueller, Angela D. Friederici and Claudia Maennel have now found that when it comes to extracting complex rules from , a three-month-old outperforms adult learners.

For 20 minutes, the scientists played a stream of syllables to babies while measuring their using (). Pairs of syllables appeared together, but were separated by a third syllable. Jutta Mueller, first author of the study, stresses that "such dependencies between non-neighbouring elements are typical for natural languages and can be found in many grammatical constructions." For instance, 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".

From time to time, however, combinations like "le-wi-to" would appear, in which one of the syllables was out of place. "EEG measurements showed us that the babies recognized this rule violation", Mueller explains. Additionally, the scientists would occasionally change the tone of one syllable to a higher pitch – with an interesting outcome: Only those infants whose brains reacted to pitch changes in a more mature way could detect the syllable dependencies.

When facing the same task as the babies, adults only showed a reaction to the rule violations when asked to explicitly look for dependencies between the . Mueller and her colleagues conclude that, evidently, the automatic recognition ability is lost later on. "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."

These findings not only help understand how children manage to learn language so quickly during early development, but also point to a strong link between very basic auditory skills and sophisticated rule learning abilities. In a follow-up study, the scientists are now investigating whether differences the babies showed in response to pitch changes and in rule learning ability have any long-term effects on .

More information: Jutta Mueller, Angela D. Friederici and Claudia Maennel Auditory perception at the root of language learning PNAS, September 10, 2012, Early Edition

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

Jul 11, 2011

It's not just the words, but the sounds of words that have meaning for us. This is true for children and adults, who can associate the strictly auditory parts of language -- vowels produced in the front or the back of the ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Sep 10, 2012
Congratulations to all involved.

Recent:
I stressed* the second syllable of a three syllabic word.
The recipient - a monologuist, native speaker, fail to recognize the word.

I placed the stress to the first syllable of a three syllabic word as originally spoken by the recipient. Word recognition resumed.

You can try this experiment anywhere, anytime, with anyone.
The ability to still understand the spoken word regardless where the stress takes place within multi-syllabic words depends on whether the subject is multilingual from birth or taught.

We played this syllabic-stress word game in college with the word 'emergency'. Impossible to recognize for monologuists.

('Stress' in the linguistic sense and use of meaning.)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.