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The neonate brain detects speech structure

What are the origins of the efficient language learning abilities that allow humans to acquire their mother tongue in just a few years very early in life? Although previous studies have identified different mechanisms underlying the acquisition of auditory and speech patterns in older infants and adults, the earliest sensitivities remain unexplored. To address this issue, we investigated the ability of newborns to learn simple repetition-based structures in two optical brain-imaging experiments. In the first experiment, 22 neonates listened to syllable sequences containing immediate repetitions (ABB; e.g., "mubaba," "penana"), intermixed with random control sequences (ABC; e.g., "mubage," "penaku"). We found increased responses to the repetition sequences in the temporal and left frontal areas, indicating that the newborn brain differentiated the two patterns. The repetition sequences evoked greater activation than the random sequences during the first few trials, suggesting the presence of an automatic perceptual mechanism to detect repetitions. In addition, over the subsequent trials, activation increased further in response to the repetition sequences but not in response to the random sequences, indicating that recognition of the ABB pattern was enhanced by repeated exposure. In the second experiment, in which nonadjacent repetitions (ABA; e.g., "bamuba," "napena") were contrasted with the same random controls, no discrimination was observed. These findings suggest that newborns are sensitive to certain input configurations in the auditory domain, a perceptual ability that might facilitate later language development. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)