To better under­stand the human capacity for lan­guage, North­eastern psy­chology pro­fessor Iris Berent is searching for common sound patterns—simple syl­la­bles like “ba”—that are uni­ver­sally pre­ferred across all human languages.

This research into lan­guage pat­terns is being funded by a $1 mil­lion grant that Berent trans­ferred with her when she moved to North­eastern from her pre­vious insti­tu­tion, Florida Atlantic Uni­ver­sity, last year. Her work has been con­tin­u­ously funded for over 14 years by grants from the National Insti­tutes of Health’s National Insti­tute on Deaf­ness and Other Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Disorders.

Lin­guists have shown that, across the world’s lan­guages, cer­tain sound-​​patterns occur more fre­quently than others.

Pat­terns such as ‘bna’ are far more fre­quent than pat­terns such as ‘lba,’” Berent explains. Although there are many pos­sible expla­na­tions for this, she is intrigued by the pos­si­bility, sug­gested by MIT lin­guist Noam Chomsky and Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Steven Pinker, that the pat­terns reflect a spe­cial instinct humans have for language.

This instinct allows only cer­tain pat­terns to occur in human lan­guages, says Berent, and these restric­tions are active uni­ver­sally, in the brains of all speakers.

For many years, this pos­si­bility has been exam­ined using mostly the­o­ret­ical argu­ments. Berent has shown how the issue can be addressed using stan­dard exper­i­mental tech­niques of cog­ni­tive psychology.

To this end, she asks North­eastern under­grad­u­ates to take part in simple psy­cho­log­ical exper­i­ments, which involve lis­tening to sound sequences, including sounds like “bnif” and “lbif,” that do not occur in their own lan­guage, but do occur in other world lan­guages. Some of the sounds occur fre­quently; others less so.

Her goal is to deter­mine whether the stu­dents favor the sound-​​patterns that are pre­ferred in other lan­guages, com­pared to those that are less pop­ular, despite having heard none of the sequences before.

To deter­mine if such pref­er­ences are uni­versal, she con­ducts sim­ilar exper­i­ments with speakers of other lan­guages, including Russian, Hebrew, Korean and Spanish, through a net­work of inter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tions with var­ious institutions.

Berent started her aca­d­emic career in a seem­ingly unre­lated discipline—music. As an under­grad­uate, Berent, who is from Haifa, Israel, was on track to become a con­cert flutist. But she couldn’t ignore, she says, the “ques­tions in the back of my mind” about how people per­ceive music.

After earning two under­grad­uate degrees in flute per­for­mance and musi­cology, she moved to Mexico City with her hus­band, a vio­linist and Mexico native. She trav­eled to north­east Mexico to study an ancient indige­nous tribe, the Huastecas, to learn how they came to love their own unique form of music.

I wanted to find how these people per­ceive their own music and why dif­ferent musical idioms seem to share some impor­tant prop­er­ties,” she recalls.

She soon real­ized, how­ever, that she needed a broader under­standing of music struc­ture as well as tools to study how the mind works.

It wasn’t until she and her hus­band moved to Pitts­burgh, where Berent enrolled in two Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh grad­uate programs—one in psy­chology and the other in music theory—that she decided to focus her studies on lan­guage. Lan­guage is easier to study than music, she says, because the field of lin­guis­tics is more devel­oped than that of music theory.

Cur­rently, Berent is writing a book on her studies of the phono­log­ical mind, to be pub­lished by Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, while con­tin­uing her research and teaching a Psy­chology of Lan­guage course.