Infants recognize that speech in a language not their own is used for communication, according to a new psychological study. The results, published in the journal Cognitionoffer new insights into how language is processed at a young age.
“By their first birthday, babies understand that foreign languages can communicate information between people, even if babies themselves don’t understand the foreign language,” says Athena Vouloumanos, associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and author. of the study. “This tells us that infants’ processing of formal aspects of language, such as speech sounds and word learning, is distinct from infants’ processing of communicative aspects of language, particularly information transfer. .”
It has long been established that infants understand that speech in their native language enables speakers to communicate. What is less clear is whether or not this understanding is limited to their mother tongue — does it extend to non-mother tongues with which infants have no experience?
To answer this question, Vouloumanos conducted a series of experiments in which 12-month-old infants saw human actors communicate in multiple ways. The infants’ responses – that is, their gaze – were recorded by an observer. Gaze length is a common measure used to track infants’ understanding of language and concepts.
In the experiments, infants saw an actor, the Communicator, repeatedly select one of two objects. When the Communicator could no longer reach the target but a second player, a Recipient, could, the Communicator would vocalize a nonsensical phrase either in English (the infants’ native language), Spanish (rhythmically different), or Russian (structurally different), or hummed (a speechless vocalization). The infants had never been exposed to Spanish or Russian before.
In all three languages, native and non-native, but without humming, infants looked longer when the recipient gave the communicator the non-target object compared to the target object. In contrast, when the Communicator hummed, infants viewed untargeted and focused outcomes the same. Looking longer when the recipient handed over the untargeted object, infants seemed to recognize that miscommunication had occurred or that the verbal interaction had some communicative value – even if it was not in their native language. .
“These findings indicate that infants can generalize beyond their specific experience with their own native language to recognize that all languages can enable people to communicate,” Vouloumanos says. “At 12 months, infants do not easily match non-native words to objects or discriminate against most non-native speech contrasts, but they can understand that non-native languages can transfer information to others.
This project was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health (R01HD072018).
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