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Newborns have inbuilt ability to pick out words from the speech


Newborn babies have an innate ability to pick out individual words from speech, according to a study which provides a key insight into the first step in language learning.

Researchers from the University of Manchester in the UK and colleagues discovered two mechanisms in three-day-old infants, which give them the skills to pick out words in the language.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Science, describes two new mechanisms which allow us to recognise when a word starts and stops.

One of the mechanisms is known as prosody -- the melody of language -- while another is called the statistics of language, which describes how we compute the frequency when sounds in a word come together.

"We think this study highlights how sentient newborn babies really are and how much information they are absorbing," said Alissa Ferry from The University of Manchester.

"That's quite important for new parents and gives them some insight into how their baby is listening to them," Ferry said.

"Language in incredibly complicated and this study is about understanding how infants try to make sense of it when they first hear it," said Ana Flo of the Neurospin Centre in France.

"We often think of language as being made up of words, but words often blur together when we talk. So one of the first steps to learn the language is to pick out the words," Flo said.

"Our study shows that at just three days old, without understanding what it means, they are able to pick out individual words from speech.

"And we have identified two important tools that we are almost certainly born with, that gives them the ability to do this," she said.

The researchers played the infants a three and a half minute audio clip in which four meaningless words were buried in a stream of syllables.

Using a painless technique called Near-Infrared Spectroscopy, which shines light into the brain, they were able to measure how much was absorbed, telling them which parts of the brain were active.

"We then had the infants listen to individual words and found that their brains responded differently to the words that they heard than to slightly different words," said Perrine Brusini of the University of Liverpool in the UK.

"This showed that even from birth infants can pick out individual words from the language," Brusini said.
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