Speech and concepts

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Chapter 5 endnote 2, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

Beginning in infancy, you learn regularities in the stream of speech that reveal the boundaries between phonemes, the smallest bits of sound that you can distinguish in a language (for example, the sound of “D” or “P” in English). These regularities become concepts that your brain later uses to categorize the stream of sound into syllables and words. [...] In an unfamiliar spoken language, you might not even discern word boundaries.

When you hear someone speak an unfamiliar language, you might have difficulty discerning the boundaries between phonemes, or even hearing certain sounds. For example, Japanese speakers have difficulty telling the English "R" and "L" apart. As another example, English speakers don't notice the difference between two different "P" sounds -- one that comes with a puff of air ("party", "popcorn") and one that doesn't ("concepts", "happen") -- but they are different phonemes in Mandarin Chinese and Hindi.

If your brain doesn’t have past experience to draw on (i.e., hasn't learned the categories), then you will won't be able to hear unfamiliar phonemes or words in another language. By six to 12 months of age, babies are already culture-bound listeners, experts in distinguishing the sounds of their native languages, but no longer distinguish sounds in other languages they could once hear.[1] Newborns pay more attention to vowel sounds from a language that they are unfamiliar with because they did not hear it in utero.[2][3]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Kuhl, Patricia K., Karen A. Williams, Francisco Lacerda, Kenneth N. Stevens, and Björn Lindblom. 1992. "Linguistic experience alters phonetic perception in infants by 6 months of age." Science 255: 606-608.
  2. Moon, Christine, Hugo Lagercrantz, and Patricia K. Kuhl. 2013. "Language experienced in utero affects vowel perception after birth: a two‐country study." Acta Paediatrica 102 (2): 156-160.
  3. There is even recent evidence that late term fetuses can detect vowel sounds in utero. See Groome, Lynn J., Donna M. Mooney, Scherri B. Holland, Yolanda D. Smith, Jana L. Atterbury, and Roscoe A. Dykman. 2000. "Temporal pattern and spectral complexity as stimulus parameters for eliciting a cardiacorienting reflex in human fetuses." Perception & Psychophysics 62 (2): 313-320. See also Zimmer, Etan Z., William P. Fifer, Young-Ihl Kim, Henry R. Rey, Conrad R. Chao, and Michael M. Myers. 1993. "Response of the premature fetus to stimulation by speech sounds." Early Human Development 33 (3): 207-215.