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Description: You probably recall hearing either in introductory course or in a child psychology course that infants, by the time there about eight months of age, have begun to tune themselves to the speech sounds represented in the languages being spoken around them in their homes. This early attention to spoken communication is taken to be due to both the preparation for learning spoken language and an awareness of and attention to the nature of the linguistic community one is growing up in. But speech sounds are only one part of how meaning is arranged within a spoken language. Some languages, called tonal languages, map meaning both in terms of speech sounds and in terms of the tone or register with which those sounds are produced. So, what do you think, the young infants pick up on tonality as well as speech sounds? And if so how would we know? Have a look at the article linked below for discussion of this issue.

Source: Mother Tongue Shapes Infants First Cries, Traci Pettersen,  PsychCentral.

Date: August 22, 2016


Photo Credits:  Psyc Central

Links:  Article Link —

We know that, as noted above, human infants seem to pay attention to the speech sounds being used in the languages spoken around them and that by the time there eight months of age if started to tune their speech processing systems so that they can hear and process sounds in the languages spoken around them and no longer perceive speech sounds in languages not being spoken around them. The research discussed in the article linked above suggests that in addition to this infants also seem to be prepared to pay attention to the tonal qualities of the language or languages being spoken around them. For example, an infant growing up in a Mandarin speaking environment has an opportunity to hear the four different tonal levels that have a role to play in meaning within that language. So, words and Mandarin may sometimes be exactly the same varying only in the tone with which they are delivered, and as such pay attention to tone it is important if one is to properly follow meeting. Amongst the Nso Cameroon things are more complicated as they use eight different tonal levels to discriminate meaning within their language. Infants from tonal language communities display a much greater variation in the pitch of their crying and do infants from non-tonal speech communities (such as infants growing up in an environment where German is spoken). What all this suggests is that even before they are born (because infants prenatally can actually hear the languages being spoken around them and their mothers) human infants are prepared to become attuned to the features of the spoken language or languages that they are going to need to learn if they are to become full-fledged members of the family units they are about to be born into.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How is it that infants convince researchers that they are attending to and processing the tonal qualities of the language being spoken around them as they grow and develop?
  2. What does the findings of this study suggest about the role of genetic factors in the acquisition of spoken language by human infants?
  3. Are there aspects of the English language in which meaning depends at least on some aspects of tone or pitch?

References (Read Further):

Newman, J. D. (1985). The infant cry of primates. In Infant crying (pp. 307-323). Springer US.

Werker, J. F., & Tees, R. C. (1984). Cross-language speech perception: Evidence for perceptual reorganization during the first year of life. Infant behavior and development, 7(1), 49-63.

Kuhl, P. K., Williams, K. A., Lacerda, F., Stevens, K. N., & Lindblom, B. (2006). Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age. Foundations of Pediatric Audiology, 71.

Doupe, A. J., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms. Annual review of neuroscience, 22(1), 567-631.