Language universals at birth

The evolution of human languages is driven both by primitive biases present in the human sensorimotor systems and by cultural transmission among speakers. However, whether the design of the language faculty is further shaped by linguistic biological biases remains controversial. To address this question, we used near-infrared spectroscopy to examine whether the brain activity of neonates is sensitive to a putatively universal phonological constraint. Across languages, syllables like blif are preferred to both lbif and bdif. Newborn infants (2-5 d old) listening to these three types of syllables displayed distinct hemodynamic responses in temporal-perisylvian areas of their left hemisphere. Moreover, the oxyhemoglobin concentration changes elicited by a syllable type mirrored both the degree of its preference across languages and behavioral linguistic preferences documented experimentally in adulthood. These findings suggest that humans possess early, experience-independent, linguistic biases concerning syllable structure that shape language perception and acquisition.

http://www.pnas.org/content/111/16/5837.full.pdf

PDF – PNAS-2014-Gmez-5837-41

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