Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

A Little Science about Language and Babies

with 5 comments

Apparently, babies are tuned in to language from the moment they’re born, and possibly earlier. A recent study suggests that even if they can’t understand or form specific words, newborns recognize the intonation of their parents’ tongue and try to replicate its peculiar melody.

Here’s the article at NPR, which also includes the original broadcast audio and demonstrations of the differences between French and German babies’ intonation.

And just in case you’re still curious, here’s a fairly in-depth analysis of that same study from the Language Log blog at University of Pennsylvania.

Written by Nathanael Green

November 17, 2009 at 6:02 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I remember watching a video of a study one time on infants and language. They took an infant whose parents spoke Mandarin Chinese, and an infant whose parents spoke English, and for each they played a series of Mandarin sounds that to an English speaker sound identical (though they’re not). Lo and behold, the Chinese baby responded differently to the sounds, and the other one didn’t. I may be fudging some details here, and I don’t remember when I saw this, but I think the general principles are intact.

    Kevin Dickinson

    November 17, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    • It’s amazing how early it seems we adapt to language.

      And on a slight tangent to the Mandarin mention:

      There was some research (again, not sure of the exact details) concerned with perfect pitch. And the traditional argument goes that it’s a rare gift some people are born with, but this research showed something different. Apparently, English speakers who can identify a musical note by ear are quite rare, but for speakers of tonal languages (like Mandarin), it’s a fairly common phenomenon.

      Nathanael Green

      November 24, 2009 at 7:51 pm

  2. Nate—I just came across a fascinating BBC documentary on the subject. I posted on it if you’re interested. It’s an hour long (6 parts on YouTube), but well worth it.

    Kevin Dickinson

    November 18, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for the reminder about that documentary. I saw the first clip on your blog and it looks great! I’ll definitely have to check out the rest of it.

      It’s crazy to think about how young the study of linguistics really is and how little we really know about how our brains really deal with language.

      Nathanael Green

      November 24, 2009 at 7:53 pm

  3. Absolutely no source material to back this up, but I was at a welcome to the world party for a three month old last weekend, and someone said I wonder what it’s like to be a baby. I said, well, unfortunately nobody can remember. But someone replied that they had done scientific studies to show that when infants hear sound, it registers in their brain in such a way that they see images. Babies on acid, someone said. I wouldn’t know, but it sounds pretty trippy.


    November 20, 2009 at 1:19 am

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