Learning a language is a complex process, but researchers from the United Kingdom and Japan have published a study shedding some light on how infants learn new words. In a study of infants just beginning to learn language, researchers discovered that the brain is biologically predisposed to connect sounds and images to create language. The research contributes to the body of evidence regarding innate language-learning abilities.
The researchers observed a group of 11-month-old infants who were in the initial stages of word learning. They introduced the infants to novel words like ‘kipi’ or ‘moma’, which referred to pictures of a spiky or rounded shape. While the infants processed the new words, the researchers monitored their brains’ electrical activity.
The infants rapidly learned to associate the novel words with the images they saw. Brain activity increased when the infants heard the word that corresponded to the shape they were shown, which suggests that infant brains spontaneously match visual and auditory input. The infants’ brain responses indicated that they were trying to work out the meanings of the novel words.
Dr. Sotaro Kita from the University of Warwick, one of the study’s authors, explained the results, stating “Communication traffic between regions of the brain was light when the word matched the shape, but the traffic became heavy, especially in the left hemisphere, where language is typically processed, when the word did not match the shape. The left hemisphere had to work harder to associate the visual and auditory input when they are not a natural match.”
The results also showed that infants’ have an ability to bind sounds with images as they learn language. This binding ability may play a key role in language learning because it provides infants with a clue that sounds can refer to things in the real world.
This research is published in the journal Cortex.
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