Italy: Long before they learn to speak, infants begin to make sense of a large, complex, and brand new world through sounds, a new study has shown. Our tiny friends associate the strictly auditory parts of language—vowels produced in the front or the back of the mouth, high or low pitch—with blunt or pointy things, large or small things, fast-moving or long-staying things.

Marcela Pena, Jacques Mehler, and Marina Nespor, working together at the International School for Advanced Studies, in Trieste, Italy and Catholic University of Chile have demonstrated that these physical properties of speech are associated, very early in life, with abstract concepts—in this case, larger and smaller.

In previous research, adults reared in many different languages have shown an association of I and E sounds with small objects and O and A with large ones. In this study, the babies were shown objects that were larger or smaller in comparison to one another.

From the very start and almost 100 per cent of the time, the babies directed their gaze first and looked longer at the smaller objects when they heard syllables using I or E, and at the larger ones with O or A.

"We don't know if this is something we are born with or something we have to learn —but it is a very early capacity," says Pena.

She said that "the baby is not learning the word—bigger, smaller, ball, triangle—itself."
Rather, she or he is "exploiting the physical properties of a sound to help categorize another [abstract] property of the environment," she added. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

(Agencies)

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