How Do Babies Analyze Speech? Infant Language Acquisition


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How well can babies understand adult speech? Image by mokra

Do babies understand what we’re saying? Research says yes!

Noam Chomsky’s thoughts on the growth and maturity of a child’s grammatical capacities have inspired many psycholinguists to study children’s language development. New research published in December 2011 by Jill Lany from The University of Notre Dame adds another level to his, and other previously held, theories of first language acquisition.

Babies Listen to, Analyze and Process Language

Jill Lany, assistant professor of psychology, and director of Notre Dame’s baby lab, concludes from her research on first language acquisition that when babies listen to speech, they are ‘tracking word patterns’ and gathering information that provide the basis to the word learning that occurs in infants between around 18 months and two years old.

Back in 1974, Condor and Sander stated that newly-born babies respond to language, since they make slight body movements when hearing speech.  Jill Lany’s research findings not only affirm this, but leap well beyond it. From her study, Lany confirms that babies are highly attuned to finding clues from language sounds and the surrounding environment. She claims that not only do babies use language sounds or phonological information to gain understanding of speech, but that infants as young as 22 months-old, with a more developed vocabulary, use the patterns sound distributed throughout speech to gather grammatical information.

After a survey of research, it appears that Lany’s findings of the ability of infants to identify grammatical categories are ground-breaking in the field of first language acquisition.

How do Babies use Sound to Detect Meaning?

Unlike adults, babies do not have any word knowledge. Words, to babies, are just abstract chunks of sound.  To make sense out of any utterance, they have to analyze and segment the acoustic stream they hear using its sound and phonological properties. Research confirms that, without external help, infants acquire word knowledge by analyzing and acquiring information using the phonological properties of speech.

Using their accumulated phonological knowledge, first, babies identify the word form in the stream of speech; then, they map these words onto meanings they have gathered from hearing repeated utterances of the same sound chunk in the same setting or context.

Results from Lany’s research advance the idea of babies acquiring meanings through phonological information by claiming that the language sound system not only provides hints that help babies determine the meanings of words, but also enables them to distinguish between different grammatical parts of speech, such as noticing when a word is a noun or a verb.

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