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Conceptual precursors to language

Nature volume 430, pages 453456 (22 July 2004) | Download Citation

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Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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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Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37203, USA

    • Susan J. Hespos
  2. Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Elizabeth S. Spelke

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Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susan J. Hespos.

Supplementary information

Videos

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie 3

    The three movies depict video versions of three different habituation trials that were used in Experiment 1 and 2.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02634

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