Enough With Baby Talk; Infants Learn From Lemur Screeches, Too

Enough With Baby Talk; Infants Learn From Lemur Screeches, Too
September 02, 2013

New research suggests that 3-month-old human babies can use lemur calls as teaching aids.
The findings hint at a deep biological connection between language and learning.

Babies begin learning as soon as they’re born.
They’re listening, too.
But researchers still don’t know exactly how the development of language and learning are linked: “How do language and concepts come together in the mind of the baby?” asks Sandy Waxman, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Waxman has devoted her career to answering that fundamental question.
She says the language-learning connection is clear in older children.
For example, a 2-year-old hears the word “dinosaur” when she sees many different kinds of dinosaurs.
She soon connects the word “dinosaur” to the dinosaur category, and she can more easily identify future dinosaurs when she sees them.

… But that’s not what the researchers found.
The backward speech didn’t help the babies to learn categories at all.
But the lemur shrieks did.
The study appears in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Janet Werker, who studies the roots of language acquisition at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Werker says the new study shows that there is something unique about the sounds we and our nearest animal relatives make.
Even if little babies can’t pick out the words, the sounds say, “Pay attention, you just might learn something!

Whatever the effect, it doesn’t last for long.
By the time they were 6 months old, the babies had tuned out the lemur cries.
Only human speech played forward helped them to learn.

Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Sep 3.
Ferry AL, Hespos SJ, Waxman SR.
Cognitive Neuroscience Sector, Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, 34136 Trieste, Italy.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24003164 http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/14/1221166110


  • infancy
  • developmental tuning
  • language acquisition
  • conceptual development
  • language and thought