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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Language as a special signal : infants' neurological and social perception of native language, non-native language, and language-like stimuli May, Lillian Anne


The capacity to acquire language is believed to be deeply embedded in our biology. As such, it has been proposed that humans have evolved to respond specially to language from the first days and months of life. The present thesis explores this hypothesis, examining the early neural and social processing of speech in young infants. In Experiments 1-4, Near-Infrared Spectroscopy is used to measure neural activation in classic “language areas” of the cortex to the native language, to a rhythmically distinct unfamiliar language, and to a non-speech whistled surrogate language in newborn infants (Experiments 1 & 2) as well as infants at 4 months of age (Experiments 3 & 4) in. Results revealed that at birth, the brain responds specially to speech: bilateral anterior areas are activated to both familiar and unfamiliar spoken language, but not to the whistled surrogate form. Different patterns were observed in 4 month-old infants, demonstrating how language experience influences the brain response to speech and non-speech signals. Experiments 5-7 then turn to infants’ perception of language as a marker of social group, asking whether infants at 6 and 11 month-olds associate the speakers of familiar and unfamiliar language with individuals of different ethnicities. Infants at 11 months—but not at 6 months—are found to look more to Asian versus Caucasian faces when paired with Cantonese versus English language (Experiments 5, 7). However, infants at the same age did not show any difference in looking to Asian versus Caucasian faces when paired with English versus Spanish (Experiment 6). Together, these results suggest that the 11 month-old infants tested have learned a specific association between Asian individuals and Cantonese language. The experiments presented in this thesis thus demonstrate that from early in development, infants are tuned to language. Such sensitivity is argued to be of critical importance, as it may serve to direct young learners to potential communicative partners.

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