Infant Phonology Lab

Welcome to the Infant Phonology Lab

Consider the very first moment of your arrival into this world. The room around you is buzzing and booming with human voices—the words of nurses, doctors, and your mother, all commenting on the newcomer. While you cannot decipher a single word, you probably notice that their voices convey sound patterns—much research shows that newborns and even preborn infants in their mother’s uterus track sound patterns. You might recognize that some sounds occur frequently (e.g., p, t), whereas others (e.g., j) are rare, and that sounds follow each other in predictable ways (e.g., blog, but not lbog), just like beads on a necklace. This is so not only in English or Spanish, but indeed, in any known human language. And those patterns are the anchor that allows you to begin deciphering your language. How do humans achieve this feat? And why do all human languages share such a design?

Research on language evolution suggests that sound patterns are adaptive, as they allow us to form a large number of distinct words by combining smaller meaningless elements (e.g., pat, tap, apt). The sound pattern of language is called phonology. To the extent those combinations also respect the pressures imposed by our auditory and articulatory systems, phonological patterns are expected to confer an additional advantage for communication. In fact, there is some evidence that languages are designed to abide by universal phonological constraints. Research lead by Dr. Iris Berent, at Northeastern’s Infant Phonology Lab examines this possibility. Our methodology is quite simple. We invite infants to watch enjoyable video clips that feature one of two sound patterns. Neither pattern exists in English, but one pattern is popular across human languages (e.g., pnok) whereas the other is less frequent (e.g., ptok). Our question is whether young infants exhibit similar preferences. If they do, we expect infants to manifest their preferences by the amount of time they spend looking at the video displays. Infants’ looking time can thus reveal their inherent preferences regarding language structure. By examining how those preferences develop within the first year of life, we can further attempt to disentangle the contribution of nature and nurture to the design of the phonological system.

Infants Needed!

We invite you to bring your baby to the Infant Phonology Lab to participate in a language study. We are currently looking for babies who are 6-18 months of age from English speaking families. Eligible parents can fill out our Infant Lab Contact Form, or e-mail the infant lab coordinator (Kristina McCarthy, nu.infantlab@gmail.com). We look forward to hearing from you!

For Parents

Our studies are conducted at the Infant Phonology Lab at Northeastern University (directions). We are currently recruiting infants who are 6-18 months of age. Below is some additional information:

  • What to expect:

    In our studies your baby will watch a colorful and interesting movie that includes moving shapes paired with sounds. To view an example of our stimuli, click here. You will be in the same room as your baby at all times, and your baby will either be on your lap or in an infant seat for the duration of the movie. We will record how long your baby looks at each segment of the movie to see if any of the segments are more interesting or exciting than the others.

  • Confidentiality:

    All information collected for the experiment will be kept completely confidential and will not be shared with any other labs. You will not receive any information about the individual results of your baby because we are interested in infant populations as a whole. However, you will receive a letter describing the overall findings of the study and the implications of these findings.

  • Logistics:

    Studies in our lab take up to 15 minutes total, but you should give yourself about 45 minutes to allow for transportation, for your baby to become comfortable in our playroom before the study, and for us to fully explain the study and the consent form. Parking is available for free near our building, and we will meet you in the parking lot to escort you and your baby to our lab. Please feel free to bring other children with you. They will be able to play in our playroom in the company of undergraduate babysitters.