New research examining auditory mechanisms of language learning in babies has revealed that infants as young as three months of age are able to automatically detect and learn complex dependencies between syllables in spoken language. By contrast, adults only recognised the same dependencies when asked to actively search for them. The study by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig also highlights the important role of basic pitch discrimination abilities for early language development.
The speed and apparent ease with which young infants learn the basics of a language regularly astound parents and scientists alike. Of course, adults are usually assumed to have the edge in sophisticated language learning. However, scientists Jutta Mueller, Angela D. Friederici and Claudia Maennel have now found that when it comes to extracting complex rules from spoken language, a three-month-old outperforms adult learners.
For 20 minutes, the scientists played a stream of syllables to babies while measuring their brain responses using electroencephalography (EEG). Pairs of syllables appeared together, but were separated by a third syllable. Jutta Mueller, first author of the study, stresses that "such dependencies between non-neighbouring elements are typical for natural languages and can be found in many grammatical constructions." For instance, in the sentence "The boy always smiles", the third-person-suffix "s" of the verb is dependent on the noun "boy". In the study, this was reflected in the use of combinations like "le" and "bu" in sequences like "le-wi-bu".