Letter | Published:

Conceptual precursors to language

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



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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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.

Author information


  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


  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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