Can You Hear That? Listening Study Yields Amazing Insights About Early Human Language

In response to yesterday's blog on clever techniques researchers use to get at the goings on of the infant brain, someone asked if the "habituation technique" I described with looking is also used with listening. If you missed that post, click here for a quick primer. The answer of course is YES!

I was going to post an example of a listening habituation study but if you read yesterday's post, you can probably figure out how that would go. Here, instead, is an example of a listening study using a different listening technique called "conditioned head turning". I wanted to include it because it is one of the more famous studies with mind-blowing findings (if you didn't already hear about it in the media), that have come from infant listening work. I hope you agree that it's incredibly cool!

Check it out:

The Scoop: All babies are born with the capacity to acquire language and which one (or ones) they end up using depends on which one (or ones) they are exposed to. So it's not so surprising that young babies can hear and tell the difference between speech sounds that us old folks can no longer hear e.g. Japanese infants can hear and discriminate between the "r" and "l" sounds in the English language more easily than Japanese adults. Interestingly, the paring down of your sound repertoire to the sounds in your language (s) of exposure happens around 10 months of age, just around the onset of language production. It's as though the brain is honing in on what it will need to find our way in the social world.

In fact, the evidence suggests that this "honing in" may apply to social stimuli in general i.e. not just language. Another study showed that young infants can discriminate between different faces of the same race, a phenomenon that holds for different races; Chinese, Caucasian, African etc. But by 9 months of age, they seem to lose that fine tuned ability and are best at discriminating faces of their own race!  Read: social input goes a long way to influencing our social perception. Here's a link to one of the relevant papers in case you're really curious.

Notice that the speech and face processing narrowing is happening around the same time? Why? Probably because it's more efficient to be finely tuned to the social environment you have to deal with, the one you need to find your way in, to have your needs met in etc.

I don't know about you, but after reading this stuff I usually have two reactions: 1). Wow! Fascinating! and 2). Holy crap it's so much responsibility raising a child. What is he being exposed to?  Do we educate bilingually?  Is he getting multiracial/multicultural input?  Is that necessarily good or bad or something I should worry about at all?  Ughhh!  Then I usually realize that time is marching on and stuff is happening anyway, like it or not. There's only so much we can control…

- Tracy

4 thoughts on “Can You Hear That? Listening Study Yields Amazing Insights About Early Human Language

  1. SUCH great stuff.
    I would love to hear more about bilingual education from an early age. Recently, I started trying to speak French to my son (at about 22 months) and he became very upset by this, so I stopped. I also decided not to speak in French to him from birth because I’m not completely fluent — I wouldn’t be able to express myself as clearly to him and I felt it was more important to feel connected to my son than for him to speak French at age 18 mos.
    But I did regret not speaking French to him earlier (looks like before 9 months was important) so he didn’t have this aversive reaction to it. For now, I’ve decided that I will wait until he’s got English down before I try French or Cantonese.
    Have I waited too long? Will he still have the necessary plasticity at a later age? What do the data look like relating early multilingual exposure and language acquisition later in life?

  2. My kids (DS 5, DD 3)are bilingual ( English/Italian). Despite the fact that we are living in a non-English speaking country, English is still their dominant language, probably because the person they have the most contact with is me. However, neither langauge is as good as what it would be if they were mono-lingual. Italian and for that matter English speaking 5 year olds have a far superior vocabulary and much more sophisticated grammar. Still, a small price to pay today for being completely bilingual tomorrow.
    I also grew up bilingual and although I spoke the second language (Italian)to my dad, my Italian was a mere ‘second’ language rather than equal first language like in my kids’ case. Had my mother been the speaker of the ‘foreign’ language, things would have been different. You, know ‘mother language’ and all.
    As far as language aquisition goes, I am a pretty bad language student. My Italian is fluent although not always accurate, my writing is hideous, and I’ll always have a foreign sounding accent (although not necessarily Anglo sounding). I spent 9 years studying ( and majoring in) Indonesian, a language I no longer speak or understand. I lived in Spain and spoke Spanish well, until it was completely usurped by my Italian. I have also studied and forgotten, German and Japanese.
    I’d also be curious about the data @chaosgirl mentioned.

  3. @chaosgirl and @paola:
    I started to compose a response to your comments on language and multilingualism and realized that there is just WAY TOO MUCH to pass on in a comment. This is a HUGE area and I will need to brush up on some gaps. I am grappling with the issue personally as my son is being raised English-french. He is not bilingual yet, but I’d say well on his way. Like Paola, I’m prepared to deal with the short-term “delay” for the longer term goal of bilingualism.
    So I’m gonna save an depth response for a series of blogs on the topic. Just give me some time.
    Thanks for the input. Great to know people are out there reading this stuff.

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