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 mothers’ uteruses 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 led 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.
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