Humans May be Born With Innate Ability to Recognize Which Sounds are Words
New linguistic research suggests that humans are born with basic fundamental knowledge about languages, such as which types of sound are meant to be words.
Researchers from Northeastern University in Boston and the International School of Advanced Studies in Italy attempted to answer whether human infants are born with the innate knowledge of what words might sound like. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, the researchers detail their methods for testing whether this is true, concluding that we are, in fact, born with some natural language knowledge.
The results of this new study suggest that, the sound patterns of human languages are the product of an inborn biological instinct, very much like birdsong," said study co-author Iris Berent of Northeastern.
Berent and her collaborators were curious whether the sound combinations at the beginning of words offer any clues into their status as words versus noise.
She offers the example of the consonant pair "b-l." Many words in many languages being with b-l - "blink" in English, "blando in Italian, "blusa" in Spanish, for example. The inverse of that consonant pair, "l-b", however, hardy begins any word in any language. Russian has some words that begin with the "l-b" sound - such as "lbu," a word for forehead - but not many.
Previous research by Berent determined that adult speakers show preference towards favoring the syllable "bla" over "lba." For the new study, Berent wanted to test where this preference comes from, and whether it is learned or inherent.
The research team, tested newborn Italian babies by preforming a non-invasive, near-infrared spectroscopy on their brain cortexes to see how oxygenation changes in time. The researchers measured the infants' brain reaction when the babies were listening to so-called "good" and "bad" word candidates based on natural human speech.
"Working with Italian newborn infants and their families, we observed that newborns react differently to good and bad word candidates, similar to what adults do," the researchers said in a statement. "Young infants have not learned any words yet, they do not even babble yet, and still they share with us a sense of how words should sound. This finding shows that we are born with the basic, foundational knowledge about the sound pattern of human languages."