Washington [US]24 September (ANI): Infants can recognize most sounds soon after birth, and by the age of one year they begin to become language-specific listeners, according to a study.
Researchers are still trying to figure out how babies recognize which acoustic features of their speech are contrastive, a linguistic term that captures differences between speech sounds that can alter word meanings. In English, for example, the letters [b] and [d] are contrastive because they change them [b] in ‘ball’ to a [d] creates a new word, “doll”.
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The findings, recently published in an article in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by two University of Maryland computational linguists, offer new insights into the topic, which is essential for a better understanding of how infants learn what sounds their are mother tongue.
Her research shows that an infant’s ability to interpret acoustic differences as either contrastive or non-contrastive can stem from the contexts in which different sounds occur.
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Researchers have long believed that there would be obvious differences between the way contrasting sounds such as short and long vowels are pronounced in Japanese. Although the pronunciation of these two sounds differs with careful speech, the acoustics in more natural settings are often much more ambiguous.
“This is one of the first phonetic learning accounts shown to work with spontaneous data, suggesting that infants may eventually learn which acoustic dimensions are contrastive,” says Kasia Hitczenko, lead author of the study.
Hitczenko graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019 with a PhD in Linguistics. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Cognitive Science and Psycholinguistics at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.
Hitczenko’s work shows that babies can distinguish acoustic sounds using contextual cues such as neighboring sounds. Her team tested their theory in two case studies with two different definitions of context by comparing data on Japanese, Dutch and French.
Researchers collected speech occurring in different contexts and created plots summarizing what vowel durations were like in each context. In Japanese, they found that these vowel duration plots differed significantly in different contexts, as some contexts had shorter vowels while other contexts had longer vowels. In French, these vowel duration charts were similar in all contexts.
“We believe this work provides a compelling account of how infants learn the linguistic contrasts of their language and shows that the necessary signal is present in naturalistic language, advancing our understanding of early language learning,” says co-author Naomi Feldman , an associate professor of linguistics with a professorship at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS).
Feldman adds that the signal they examined applies to most languages, and it is likely that their result can be generalized to other contrasts. (ANI)
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