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Dan Goodman's prediction and politics journal.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Nature 430, 453 - 456 (22 July 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02634

Conceptual precursors to language

SUSAN J. HESPOS1 AND ELIZABETH S. SPELKE2

1 Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37203, USA
2 Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.H. (s.hespos@vanderbilt.edu).

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 language, and this sensitivity reflects basic properties of the auditory system rather than mechanisms specific to language; however, infants' sensitivity to non-native sound distinctions declines over the course of the first year. 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 another. 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 mechanics that are shared by non-human animals. Language learning therefore seems to develop by linking linguistic forms to universal, pre-existing representations of sound and meaning.
http://www.nature.com/cgi-taf/Dynapage.taf?file=/nature/journal/v430/n6998/abs/nature02634_fs.htm
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