Brains Process Language Universals More Easily Language universals—syllables that are frequent across languages—are hardwired in the human brain, according to a study published April 17 in PLOS ONE. The results suggest individual speakers’ brains are sensitive to language universals, and recognize them more readily than infrequent syllables. Although language universals have been the subject of intense ... Research in Brief
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Research in Brief  |   August 01, 2014
Brains Process Language Universals More Easily
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Development / Speech, Voice & Prosody / Research in Brief
Research in Brief   |   August 01, 2014
Brains Process Language Universals More Easily
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 20. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB2.19082014.20
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 20. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB2.19082014.20
Language universals—syllables that are frequent across languages—are hardwired in the human brain, according to a study published April 17 in PLOS ONE. The results suggest individual speakers’ brains are sensitive to language universals, and recognize them more readily than infrequent syllables.
Although language universals have been the subject of intense research, their basis remains elusive. Researchers wondered whether these universal syllables could stem from the biology of the language system. Could various syllables’ popularity or unpopularity result from universal linguistic principles that are active in every human brain?
To address this question, Iris Berent of Northeastern University and researchers at Harvard Medical School examined the response of human brains to distinct syllable types—either those that are frequent across languages (for example, blif, bnif), or infrequent (for example, bdif, lbif). In the experiment, 14 English-speaking participants (10 female, mean age 22.5) heard one auditory stimulus at a time (for example, lbif), and researchers then asked them to determine whether the stimulus includes one syllable or two while their brain was simultaneously imaged.
Results showed the syllables that were infrequent and ill-formed, as determined by their linguistic structure, were harder for people to process. Remarkably, a similar pattern emerged in participants’ brain responses: Worse-formed syllables (lbif) exerted different demands on the brain than syllables that are well-formed (blif). The researchers interpreted the results as showing that the brains of individual speakers are sensitive to language universals, because they observed different brain responses based on cross-linguistic syllable frequency.
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August 2014
Volume 19, Issue 8