How Do Babies Analyze Speech? Infant Language Acquisition


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Babies listen to and analyse speech. Photo by Lars Ploughmann

How Does Discourse Aid Grammatical Knowledge?

In her research, Lany supports her findings of the grammatical ability of infants by pointing out that babies can recognize “adjacent relationships” in which a phrase or sound like “it’s a” occurs immediately before an object.

Decoded Science asked Jill Lany if the emphasis placed on nouns and verbs in speech and the changes in tone could attract the infant’s attention, and help babies determine the meanings of the utterances. Lany replied “This may help infants to find words in fluent speech.”

From her findings, Lany also maintains that when cues and word patterns indicate a verb or action word, babies seem to use these clues to attach meanings to the new words they are learning.

Innate Ability to Acquire and Learn Language

Research continues to prove that, throughout the first years of their lives, complex cognitive processes allow children to determine which of the possible sounds and rules are distinctive to their language. Lany’s results seem to echo Chomsky’s declaration in 1965 “that language acquisition is based on the child’s discovery of what from a formal point of view is a deep and abstract theory…”

Babies and Language Acquisition

Lany also told Decoded Science that, “These findings suggest that infants have very powerful learning mechanisms that are tuned through experience. These learning mechanisms, while once thought to be insufficient for language learning, may in fact be instrumental in that process.”  In other words, babies are naturally wired to learn to understand language, based on what they hear.


Lany, J., Saffran J. R. Interactions between statistical and semantic information in infant language development. Developmental Science 14:5 (2011): 1207–1219. Accessed January 14, 2012.

Chomsky, N. Language and Mind. Third edition. (2006). Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N., with Halle, M. The Sound Pattern of English. (1968). New York: Harper & Row.

Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. (1965). Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

Condon, W. S., Sander, L.W. Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech: interactional participation and language acquisition.  Science.  183 (1974). 99-101.

Christopher, A. et al. Reflections on phonological bootstrapping: Its role in phonological and syntactical acquisition in Cognitive models of speech processing: psycholinguistic and computational perspectives on the lexicon. ed. Gerry T. M. Altmann. (1995).  Psychology Press Ltd.

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