Sunday, December 05, 2010

Are we ‘illiterate listeners’? [Part 1]

"French babies cry differently as compared to German babies. This was the conclusion from a study that was published a year ago in Current Biology (see earlier entry). Three day old German babies cry in a downward fashion, their French contemporaries showed an increasing swelling of the cry and stop abruptly.

It was a surprising observation, especially in the light of the general belief that in crying the pitch should always drop as a physiological consequence of the respiratory cycle. Apparently, babies of just a few days old can control both the dynamics and the intonation contour of their crying. Why would they do this?

The researchers interpreted it as the first steps in the development of language. In spoken French the mean intonation contour is rising (dropping at the very end of an utterance), in German the mean intonation typically exhibits a falling contour. This combined with the fact that the human auditory system is already functional in the last trimester of pregnancy made the researchers conclude that these babies picked up the intonation contours of their native language in these last months and consequently imitated them in their crying.

This observation is also surprising since the literature suggests that children only get interested in their native language roughly between six and eighteen months, when they start to imitate it in their babbling. Is it indeed the case, as stressed by these researchers (and the recent literature citing it; e.g. Elk & Hunnius, 2010), that this is unique evidence for a much earlier sensitivity to language than commonly thought? Or is there another interpretation possible?

Although the empirical results are clear, this interpretation is a typical example of what one could call a ‘language bias’: an understandable enthusiasm of linguists to interpret a range of phenomena in the real world as ‘linguistic’. One can, however, easily make the argument that this early sensitivity to intonation contour is a not a linguistic skill but a musical one.

Most linguists see the use of rhythm, dynamics, and intonation as an aid for making infants familiar with the words and sentence structures of the language of the culture in which they will be raised. Words and word divisions are emphasized through exaggerated intonation contours and varied rhythmic intervals, thereby facilitating the process of learning a specific language. These aspects are referred to as prosody, but they are actually the basic building blocks of music. Only much later in the development of a child will this ‘musical prosody’ be used, for instance in the marking, and consequently the recognition of word boundaries. But these early signs of musical skill are — and I like to stress this – not of a linguistic nature. It is the preverbal and preliterate stage of our musical listening in development."

Fragment from inaugural address De ongeletterde luisteraar (Honing, 2010).

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H. (2010). De ongeletterde luisteraar. Over muziekcognitie, muzikaliteit en methodologie. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

ResearchBlogging.orgMampe, B., Friederici, A., Christophe, A., & Wermke, K. (2009). Newborns' Cry Melody Is Shaped by Their Native Language Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

 ResearchBlogging.orgElk, M. van & Hunnius, S. (2010) Het babybrein, over de ontwikkeling van de hersenen bij baby's. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.

No comments:

Post a Comment