Two new studies appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal what appear to be innate language preferences. In one study, Jacques Mehler of the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy and his colleagues discovered that newborns distinguish syllables commonly found in different languages from rare syllables. A study by Jennifer Culbertson of George Mason Unity in Fairfax, Virginia and David Adger of Queen Mary University of London shows that people have an innate preference for ordering words based on their meanings.
Mehler and his team had 72 newborns, between two and five days old, listen to recordings of nonsense syllables spoken by native Russian speakers. The infants heard syllables like “blif”, which are common in many different languages, as well as syllables like “lbif” and “bdif,” which are much less common. When the researchers studied blood flow in the newborns’ brains, they found that the newborns reacted differently to the common syllables than to the uncommon ones.
Frequently heard syllables like “blif” obey the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP), which provides rules for ordering the sounds in a syllable. Syllables like “blif” follow the SSP, while syllables like “lbif” and “bdif” violate it. The…
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