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Baby's first phonemes.

Before infants utter a single meaningful word, their perception of speech sounds, known as phonemes, changes as a result of consistently hearing adults speak a particular language, scientists report in the Jan. 31 SCIENCE.

The new data indicate that certain consonant and vowel sounds act as ideal examples, or prototypes, of particular phonemes and foster the learning of one's native language during the first six months of life, maintain psychologist Patricia K. Kuhl of the University of Washington in Seattle and her co-workers.

Kuhl and a colleague previously found that prototypes of English speech sounds identified by U.S. adults draw preferential responses from 6-month-olds born in this country (SN: 7/15/89, p.37). Other studies suggest that infants no more than 2 months old discern differences between speech sounds of many languages, including those never heard at home.

Kuhl's group tested 6-month-olds, 32 in the United States and 32 in Sweden. In each country, 16 babies listened to a prototype of an English vowel sound and the other 16 heard a prototype of a Swedish vowel sound. Training consisted of each infant listening to one of the prototypes repeated from a loudspeaker and receiving a reward (activation of a toy bear pounding a drum) for turning his or her head toward the loudspeaker when the prototype changed to one of its variations.

U.S. infants perceived the English prototype as identical to its variants (as evidenced by the lack of a head turn) on two-thirds of all trials; in contrast, they perceived the Swedish prototype as identical to its variants on half the trials. Swedish babies showed the reverse pattern, merging the Swedish prototype with its variants two-thirds of the time and treating the English prototype as identical to acoustic relatives half the time.

Thus, by age 6 months, infants begin to use prototypes of native-language vowel sounds to sort phonemes into categories, the researchers contend. This ability may reflect an innate biological capacity of infants to remember crucial stimuli, such as the faces of parents, familiar voices and the acoustic characteristics of speech, they maintain. Knowledge of how to blend phonemes together and what words mean apparently plays little or no role in this phenomenon, the scientists add.
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Title Annotation:perception of speech
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 8, 1992
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