All human lan­guages con­tain two levels of struc­ture, said Iris Berent, a psy­chology pro­fessor in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Sci­ence. One is syntax, or the ordering of words in a sen­tence. The other is phonology, or the sound struc­ture of indi­vidual words.

Berent — whose research focuses on the phono­log­ical struc­ture of lan­guage — exam­ines the nature of lin­guistic com­pe­tence, its ori­gins and its inter­ac­tion with reading. While pre­vious studies have all cen­tered on adult lan­guage acqui­si­tion, she is now working with infants to address two core questions.

First,” she said, “do infants have the capacity to encode phono­log­ical rules? And, second, are some phono­log­ical rules innate?”

To address the first issue, Berent col­lab­o­rated with neu­ro­sci­en­tists Janet Werker, of the Uni­ver­sity of British Columbia, and Judit Ger­vain, of the Paris-​​based Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

By uti­lizing an optical brain imaging tech­nique called near-​​infrared spec­troscopy, or NIRS, the researchers found that new­borns have the capacity to learn lin­guistic rules. This finding — pub­lished this month in the Journal of Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science — sug­gests that the neural foun­da­tions of lan­guage acqui­si­tion are present at birth.

Armed with this knowl­edge, Berent has begun con­ducting behav­ioral studies on more than two-​​dozen infants to explore whether lin­guistic rules are innate or entirely learned.

We want to see whether infants prefer cer­tain sound pat­terns to others even if nei­ther occurs in their lan­guage,” Berent explained. “For instance, we know that human lan­guages prefer sequences such as bnog over bdog. Would six-​​month-​​old infants show this pref­er­ence even if their lan­guage (Eng­lish) does not include either sequence?”

For the study, each child is placed in front of a video screen that dis­plays an image pulsing in coor­di­na­tion with rotating sounds, such as “bnog” and “bdog.” Berent hypoth­e­sized that infants would look longer at the video screen when they hear sounds to which they are innately biased.

Pre­lim­i­nary results have upheld the hypoth­esis, but Berent is still accepting new sub­jects for the study. Her entire research pro­gram forms part of a new book called “The Phono­log­ical Mind,” which will be pub­lished by Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press this year.

A sym­po­sium on the nature, ori­gins and use of lan­guage will take place on March 30 at 12:30 p.m. in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ballroom.