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January 3, 1999

Infants Shown to Grasp
Abstract Rules of Language

By Amy Williams, Language Research Reporter
SAN RAMON - Researchers have discovered that infants as young as 7 months can recognize and generalize the abstract rules of language, an ability that apparently helps humans to acquire language skills early in life.

     While previous studies have shown that infants acquire their language skills by focusing on pairs or combinations of words that are likely to be spoken together, the latest finding shows a basic understanding of the structure of language and the ability to apply that structure to new sounds.

      The discovery of this previously unknown ability, which is detailed in an article in the January 1 issue of Science, resulted from a set of experiments conducted by a team of psychologists at New York University and Amherst College headed by Gary F. Marcus, an associate professor of psychology at N.Y.U.

     "Over the past 40 years, scientists who study language have found that the mind puts together sentence components -- nouns, verbs, and adjectives -- as if they were X's, Y's, and Z's in an equation," he said. "We have now found that even 7-month-olds can do the same."

      In their experiment, the researchers had each infant listen for two minutes to 16 simple "sentences" consisting of three made-up words in an A-B-A or A-B-B pattern, such as "wo fe wo" or "wo fe fe." They reported that when the "words" in these "sentences" were changed, more than 90 per cent of the infants were able to recognize the sentence patterns they had heard before.

      The scientists determined that the babies recognized the patterns by observing their listening behavior and attention spans. The babies listened longer and paid more attention, the researchers said, to the sentences with unfamiliar structures. The attention spans were determined based on how long the infants looked at a blinking light next to the speakers from which they heard the sounds.


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