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Conceptual precursors to language


Because human languages vary in sound and meaning, children must learn which distinctions their language uses. For speech perception, this learning is selective: initially infants are sensitive to most acoustic distinctions used in any language1,2,3, and this sensitivity reflects basic properties of the auditory system rather than mechanisms specific to language4,5,6,7; however, infants' sensitivity to non-native sound distinctions declines over the course of the first year8. Here we ask whether a similar process governs learning of word meanings. We investigated the sensitivity of 5-month-old infants in an English-speaking environment to a conceptual distinction that is marked in Korean but not English; that is, the distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ fit of one object to another9,10. Like adult Korean speakers but unlike adult English speakers, these infants detected this distinction and divided a continuum of motion-into-contact actions into tight- and loose-fit categories. Infants' sensitivity to this distinction is linked to representations of object mechanics11 that are shared by non-human animals12,13,14. Language learning therefore seems to develop by linking linguistic forms to universal, pre-existing representations of sound and meaning.

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Figure 1: Infants show categorical perception of tight- and loose-fitting actions.
Figure 2: Infants use the tight–loose distinction in predicting object motion.
Figure 3: English-speaking adults' sensitivity to the tight-fit–loose-fit and support–containment distinctions.


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We thank E. Blass, K. Condry, J. Goodman and L. Markson for comments and suggestions. This work was supported by grants from the NIH and NIH NRSA.

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Correspondence to Susan J. Hespos.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Movie 1

The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2. (MP4 1095 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2. (MP4 1294 kb)

Supplementary Movie 3

The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2. (MP4 1149 kb)

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Hespos, S., Spelke, E. Conceptual precursors to language. Nature 430, 453–456 (2004).

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