NIR spectroscopy helps discover word pronunciation preferences in newborns

Linguists have noticed that, despite the huge variability of human languages, there are some preferences in the sound of words that can be found across languages, prompting them to wonder whether this reflects the existence of a universal, innate biological basis of language. To that end, a study at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA; Trieste, Italy), using near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy to observe newborn brain activity, has found that there are certain preferences already active at that age in how to pronounce words.

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SISSA research scientist David Gomez, who was first author of the study, and colleagues observed the brain activity of newborns. "If it is possible to demonstrate that these preferences are already present within days from birth, when the newborn baby is still unable to speak and presumably has very limited language knowledge, then we can infer that there is an inborn bias that prefers certain words to others," he explains.

Using functional NIR spectroscopy during their experiments, the researchers had newborns listen to words starting with normally "preferred" sounds (for example, "bl") and others with uncommon sounds ("lb"). "What we found was that the newborns’ brains reacted in a significantly different manner to the two types of sound," explains Marina Nespor, a SISSA neuroscientist who participated in the study.

"The brain regions that are activated while the newborns are listening react differently in the two cases," comments Gomez, "and reflect the preferences observed across languages, as well as the behavioral responses recorded in similar experiments carried out in adults."

"It’s difficult to imagine what languages would sound like if humans didn’t share a common knowledge base," concludes Gomez. “We are lucky that this common base exists. This way, our children are born with an ability to distinguish words from 'non-words' ever since birth, regardless of which language they will then go on to learn."

The study was carried out in collaboration with Northeastern University (Boston, MA) and the Santa Maria della Misericordia Hospital (Udine, Italy).

Full details of the work appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS); for more information, please visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1318261111.

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