7-months old bilingual infants use prosody to learn the basics of grammar in different languages

7-months old infants can differentiate between the pitch and duration of different languages (Credit: Shutterstock)

Researchers have found that bilingual infants have unique ability to differentiate and learn the grammar of the native languages depending on the “prosodic cues”.

This research has been published online in the journal Nature Communications.

Prosody refers to the regularity of spoken language, with stress and tone, or the study of these patterns i.e. rhythm of speech.

It is a matter of great interest that how the children learn the grammar of the native language through speech (without learning the basics of grammar directly). This interesting phenomenon, of learning basics of grammar, becomes even more interesting when we look at the children, who are learning two languages at the same time i.e. bilingual infants, especially in the case of two languages with completely different word orders such as English and Japanese. In English, verbs (V) come first and then the objects (O) (VO language) e.g. eat an apple, while in Japanese language, object comes first and then the verb (OV) e.g.  ringo-wo taberu ‘apple.acc eat’.

Researchers have found that OV languages have prominent pitch and/or intensity while VO languages have prominent duration in speaking. They worked on 7-months-old infants and found that the bilingual infants utilize specific prosodic cues such as pitch and duration linked to different order and frequency of the words in a statement. This is the first time that researchers have found the role of prosody in bilingual infants by the age of 7-months.

In this study, researchers have found that by the age of 7-months, “basic word order preference as cued by word frequency is well established and cannot (or can no longer) be fully reversed by prosody.”

This study is important as it is providing “some of the strongest evidence to date that the prosodic properties of the linguistic signal have a crucial role in acquiring language structure”, according to researchers.

Researchers have also noted that working on the relation of pitch and duration of different languages would help to learn language acquisition and the evolution of different languages.

“A related theoretical question concerns the origin of the correlation between specific prosodic patterns and word orders. Why is phrase-initial (OV) prominence signalled by pitch and/or intensity, and phrase-final (VO) prominence by duration? This question is of considerable interest for future research, as it will not only help elucidate processes of language acquisition, but will also provide insight into how language evolved.” Researchers wrote.

Gervain, J., & Werker, J. (2013). Prosody cues word order in 7-month-old bilingual infants Nature Communications, 4 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2430


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