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Previous studies have shown that even in infants too young to speak, listening to human speech supports core cognitive processes, including the formation of object categories.
Charleston (I-Newswire) September 9, 2013 - Previous studies have shown that even in infants too young to speak, listening to human speech supports core cognitive processes, including the formation of object categories.
Alissa Ferry, lead author and currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Language, Cognition and Development Lab at the Scuola International Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy, together with Northwestern University colleagues, documented that this link is initially broad enough to include the vocalizations of non-human primates.
"We found that for 3- and 4-month-old infants, non-human primate vocalizations promoted object categorization, mirroring exactly the effects of human speech, but that by six months, non-human primate vocalizations no longer had this effect -- the link to cognition had been tuned specifically to human language," Ferry said.
In humans, language is the primary conduit for conveying our thoughts. The new findings document that for young infants, listening to the vocalizations of humans and non-human primates supports the fundamental cognitive process of categorization. From this broad beginning, the infant mind identifies which signals are part of their language and begins to systematically link these signals to meaning.
Furthermore, the researchers found that infants' response to non-human primate vocalizations at three and four months was not just due to the sounds' acoustic complexity, as infants who heard backward human speech segments failed to form object categories at any age.
Susan Hespos, co-author and associate professor of psychology at Northwestern said, "For me, the most stunning aspect of these findings is that an unfamiliar sound like a lemur call confers precisely the same effect as human language for 3- and 4-month-old infants. More broadly, this finding implies that the origins of the link between language and categorization cannot be derived from learning alone."
"These results reveal that the link between language and object categories, evident as early as three months, derives from a broader template that initially encompasses vocalizations of human and non-human primates and is rapidly tuned specifically to human vocalizations," said Sandra Waxman, co-author and Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.
Waxman said these new results open the door to new research questions.
"Is this link sufficiently broad to include vocalizations beyond those of our closest genealogical cousins," asks Waxman, "or is it restricted to primates, whose vocalizations may be perceptually just close enough to our own to serve as early candidates for the platform on which human language is launched?"
This new evidence lends support to the idea that lip-smacking, a behavior that many primates show during amiable interactions, could have been an evolutionary step toward human speech.
"Our finding provides support for the lip-smacking origins of speech because it shows that this evolutionary pathway is at least plausible," said Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It demonstrates that nonhuman primates can vocalize while lip-smacking to produce speech-like sounds."
Bergman first began to wonder about the geladas' sounds when he began his fieldwork in 2006. "I would find myself frequently looking over my shoulder to see who was talking to me, but it was just the geladas," he recalled. "It was unnerving to have primate vocalizations sound so much like human voices."
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Published in:Health & Fitness
Published On:September 9, 2013
Print Release:Print Release
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