Brain Mechanisms in Early Language Acquisition
- 7. November 2015.
- Posted by: engbojan
- Category: Educational
Neural and behavioral research studies show that exposure to language in the first year of life influences the brain’s neural circuitry even before infants speak their first words. What do we know of the neural architecture underlying infants’ remarkable capacity for language and the role of experience in shaping that neural circuitry?
The goal of the review is to explore this topic, focusing on the data and arguments about infants’ neural responses to the consonants and vowels that make up words. Infants’ responses to these basic building blocks of speech—the phonemes used in the world’s languages—provide an experimentally tractable window on the roles of nature and nurture in language acquisition. Comparative studies at the phonetic level have allowed us to examine the uniqueness of humans’ language processing abilities. Moreover, infants’ responses to native and nonnative phonemes have documented the effects of experience as infants are bathed in a specific language. We are also beginning to discover how exposure to two languages early in infancy produces a bilingual brain. We focus here on when and how infants master the sound structure of their language(s), and the role of experience in explaining this important developmental change. As the data attest, infants’ neural commitment to the elementary units of language begins early, and the review showcases the extent to which the tools of modern neuroscience are advancing our understanding of infants’ uniquely human capacity for language.
Humans’ capacity for speech and language provoked classic debates on nature vs. nurture by strong proponents of nativism and learning. While we are far beyond these debates and informed by a great deal of data about infants, their innate predispositions, and their incredible abilities to learn once exposed to natural language, we are still just breaking ground with regard to the neural mechanisms that underlie language development. This decade may represent the dawn of a golden age with regard to the developmental neuroscience of language in humans.