Last week I finally got to meet the 6-month old son of two of my dearest friends. As I held him, I kept saying, “your brain is such a sponge,” which is, admittedly, a rather odd thing to say to an infant. But it’s true—his brain is soaking up information and making connections at an astounding rate, including sounds that he will ultimately recognize and use as his first language.
Language acquisition is a field with abundant theories, and where the idea of language being an innate concept for humans (meaning, the human mind is born with the capacity, and possibly the need, to have a language) is often debated. A recent article from LiveScience summarizes a study that used brain scans to show that a group of Italian babies, at only 2 days old, seemed to prefer certain syllables over others. These syllables were the same as those preferred by adults: “blif” and “oblif” were preferred over “lbif” and “bdif.”
What struck me in this difference is that “blif” and “oblif” contain consonant clusters that occur in several languages (in English, they occur in words like black, and lift; in French, words like bleu or obtenir). The other syllables contain consonant clusters that occur more rarely in languages. The combination of an “l” followed by a “b” is tricky to produce, and not usually found at the start of words, at least in English (I’m thinking of the word “bulb” here as an example). Same with starting a word with “b” followed by a “d.”
The other part of this article that I’d like to delve into (because if grad school taught me anything, it’s to not blindly accept statements and to question anything that seems like it has an alternative explanation) is the idea that babies’ hearing develops in-utero, and they spend a great deal of time listening to various sounds well before birth. As far as I know, no one’s been able to figure out exactly what babies’ ears can hear, but isn’t it possible that certain language sounds, or types of sounds like consonant clusters, are repeated often enough that they become familiar, and therefore preferred?
I’m not arguing for or against innateness as a theory, I’m just open to pursuing any and all possibilities.