Nav: Home

Mandarin Chinese could help us understand how infants learn English

February 20, 2019

Infants may be more sensitive to non-native speech sounds than previously thought, according to a study published in the Journal of Memory and Language. The findings shed light on the way babies begin to understand language.

The study, coauthored by Jessica Hay, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Department of Psychology, and Ryan Cannistraci, a PhD student in experimental psychology, looks at how lexical tones can affect an infant's ability to associate words with objects.

Lexical tone is the manipulation of a word's pitch contour. Although English words do not make use of pitch contours within words to convey meaning, many languages--such as Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, and Thai--do.

For example, by changing the pitch contour, the Mandarin word ma can mean either "mother," "horse," "hemp," or "to scold."

What differentiates Hay and Cannistraci's study from others in the field of infant language learning is its focus on these non-English sound structures.

"Most research on early word learning has focused on what is referred to as intonation languages, where pitch changes are used at the phrase level but not to mark changes in word meaning," Hay said. "However, over half of the world's languages use pitch contours to communicate meaning."

The researchers based their experiments on a cognitive skill called task switching--the ability to unconsciously shift attention between different tasks. The research involved presenting 14-month-old subjects with two novel objects paired with a novel pseudoword. The babies had English as their primary household language.

Once the infant was used to the association between the object-label pairs they underwent two sets of trials. In the "same" trials, infants were presented with objects along with their correct label. In the "switch" trials, the labels were reversed. By measuring average attention for both trial types, researchers were able to gauge whether the subjects had truly learned the object-label association. It may seem intuitive that the infants would have an easier time discerning between two objects when the labels differ greatly in tone, but this is not always the case.

In fact, the researchers found that the babies were able to learn the association between an object and its label more easily when they heard a sound with a high-pitch contour, just as babies that have Chinese as a primary household language would hear.

"We think it may be the case that English-learning infants are able to learn from the rising pitch contour in our experiment because they hear rising pitch contours in their everyday life," Cannistraci said. "In English, rising pitch contours are prevalent in infant-directed speech, and are also often used to solicit attention and to mark questions."

The experiments pave the way for a more inclusive approach to understanding how language is learned.

"In order to be able to generalize what we know about how children learn languages, it is important to study all sorts of different languages," Hay said. "By incorporating non-native lexical tones into our studies, we have learned that infants are able to apply what they know about their own language when learning words in a new language. This suggests that infants are motivated to learn language and will use any potentially relevant information available to them."
-end-
Learn more about the Infant Language and Perceptual Learning Lab and the Child Development Research Group.

CONTACT: Andrea Schneibel (andrea.schneibel@utk.edu, 865-974-3993)
Will Wells (wrw@vols.utk.edu)

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Related Language Articles:

The world's most spoken language is...'Terpene'
If you're small, smells are a good way to stand out.
Study analyzes what 'a' and 'the' tell us about language acquisition
A study co-authored by an MIT professor suggests that experience is an important component of early-childhood language usage although it doesn't necessarily account for all of a child's language facility.
Why do people switch their language?
Due to increasing globalization, the linguistic landscape of our world is changing; many people give up use of one language in favor of another.
Discovering what shapes language diversity
A research team led by Colorado State University is the first to use a form of simulation modeling to study the processes that shape language diversity patterns.
'Speaking my language': Method helps prepare teachers of dual language learners
Researchers at Lehigh University, led by L. Brook Sawyer and Patricia H.
The brain watched during language learning
Researchers from Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have for the first time captured images of the brain during the initial hours and days of learning a new language.
'Now-or-never bottleneck' explains language acquisition
We are constantly bombarded with linguistic input, but our brains are unable to remember long strings of linguistic information.
The secret language of microbes
Social microbes often interact with each other preferentially, favoring those that share certain genes in common.
A programming language for living cells
New language lets MIT researchers design novel biological circuits.
Syntax is not unique to human language
Human communication is powered by rules for combining words to generate novel meanings.

Related Language Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Jumpstarting Creativity
Our greatest breakthroughs and triumphs have one thing in common: creativity. But how do you ignite it? And how do you rekindle it? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on jumpstarting creativity. Guests include economist Tim Harford, producer Helen Marriage, artificial intelligence researcher Steve Engels, and behavioral scientist Marily Oppezzo.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#524 The Human Network
What does a network of humans look like and how does it work? How does information spread? How do decisions and opinions spread? What gets distorted as it moves through the network and why? This week we dig into the ins and outs of human networks with Matthew Jackson, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and author of the book "The Human Network: How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs, and Behaviours".