Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Do newborns have a language bias?

Figure from the discussed paper.
Yesterday an intriguing study appeared in Developmental Science of the group of Jacques Mehler. The research is novel in that it provides evidence for the sensitivity in one or two day old newborns for the statistical structure and prosody of speech. What is not novel is that it is a case of labeling a phenomenon as linguistic, while it could have been labelled otherwise – something I have called earlier the ‘language bias’: the linguist’s understandable enthusiasm to interpret many of nature’s phenomena as linguistic (cf. Honing, 2011).

With regard to prosody there are equally good, if not better, reasons for referring to the sensitivity to patterns of intonation (melody), stress (dynamics), and rhythm as “musical prosody” or musicality. It is no mere coincidence that these patterns also form the building blocks of music. In human development, this musicality is already active around three months before birth. Not only can infants recognize their mother’s voice and distinguish it from other voices, but they can also remember melodies and, after birth, distinguish them from other melodies that they have not heard before. Both the perception and memory of melody are already functional during pregnancy. Unborn babies appear to listen mostly to the sounds as a whole, with special attention to the intonation contours, rhythmic patterns, and dynamic development of the sound. Only much later, when the babies are about six months old, does this musical prosody begin to play a role in what could be called the beginning of language, such as the recognition of word boundaries (see citations in the introduction of the article in Developmental Science). During this phase of development, small tone curves, stress, and specific rhythms help infants to learn their mother tongue (fragment from Honing, 2019:76-77).

In part the observations made in the new study sharpen  earlier interpretations, especially those with regard to the sensitivity of the statistical structure of speech ((Experiment 1; something that was shown to be difficult to replicate after the first studies of, e.g., Marcus et al.). But with regard to prosody (Experiment 2) there are still other interpretations possible. The big challenge (and a nice one!) is to design and perform an experiment that can disentangle both interpretations. It’s on the research agenda!


Fló, A., Brusini, P., Macagno, F., Nespor, M., Mehler, J., & Ferry, A. L. (2019). Newborns are sensitive to multiple cues for word segmentation in continuous speech. Developmental Science, e12802.doi:10.1111/desc.12802

Honing, H. (2011). The Illiterate Listener: On Music Cognition, Musicality and Methodology. Amsterdam University Press.

Honing, H. (2019). The Evolving Animal Orchestra. In Search of What Makes Us Musical. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Hebben pasgeboren baby’s een taal-bias? [Dutch]

Figure 1 from the publication discussed.
Gisteren verscheen er een intrigerend onderzoek in Developmental Science van de groep van Jacques Mehler (LCDL). Het onderzoek is nieuw in de zin dat voor het eerst wordt aangetoond dat pasgeboren baby’s  – een, twee dagen oud –, gevoelig zijn voor de prosodie en statistische structuur van de moedertaal. Wat niet nieuw is dat taalkundigen een eigenschap die net zo goed ‘muzikaal’ genoemd kan worden geclaimd wordt als een talige eigenschap.

Wat prosodie betreft zijn er even goede, zo niet betere redenen te bedenken om deze ontvankelijkheid voor intonatiepatronen (dan wel melodie), klemtoon (dan wel dynamiek) en ritme ‘muzikale prosodie’ of muzikaliteit te noemen. Het zijn niet toevallig ook de bouwstenen van muziek. In de ontwikkeling van een mens is deze muzikaliteit al actief zo’n drie maanden vóór de geboorte. In de baarmoeder kunnen baby’s niet alleen de stem van hun moeder herkennen en onderscheiden van andere stemgeluiden, ze kunnen ook melodieën onthouden en die na de geboorte onderscheiden van melodieën die ze nog niet eerder gehoord hebben. Zowel de waarneming van als het geheugen voor melodie zijn tijdens de zwangerschap al functioneel. Baby’s lijken vooral naar de klanken als geheel te luisteren, met aandacht voor de intonatiecontour (melodie), ritmische patronen en het dynamisch verloop van het geluid. Pas veel later in hun ontwikkeling, als zij zo’n zes maanden oud zijn, gaat deze muzikale prosodie een rol spelen in wat je het begin van taal zou kunnen noemen, zoals het herkennen van woordgrenzen (zie de citaties in de introductie van he artikel in Developmental Science). In die fase van de ontwikkeling helpen kleine toonbuigingen, klemtoon en specifieke ritmes baby’s de moedertaal te leren (citaat uit: Honing, 2018:130-131).

Voor een deel worden deze observaties nu aangescherpt, met name wat betreft de detecteerbaarheid statistische structuur van spraak geluiden (experiment 1). Maar wat de prosodie (experiment 2) betreft is de onderste steen nog niet boven. De grote uitdaging is nu om een experiment te ontwerpen dat deze twee interpretaties uit elkaar kan houden. Binnenkort meer :-)

Fló, A., Brusini, P., Macagno, F., Nespor, M., Mehler, J., & Ferry, A. L. (2019). Newborns are sensitive to multiple cues for word segmentation in continuous speech. Developmental Science, e12802. doi: 10.1111/desc.12802.

Honing, H. (2018). Aap slaat maat. Op zoek naar de oorsprong van muzikaliteit. Amsterdam: Nieuw Amsterdam.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Interested in doing a PhD on a topic related to Music Cognition?


The Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC) at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) currently has a PhD position available at the Faculty of Science starting on 1 September 2019 (or as soon after that as possible). Applications are now invited from excellent candidates wishing to conduct research in an area within ILLC (i.e. mathematics, artificial intelligence, linguistics, philosophy, or music cognition) that fits naturally in the Faculty of Science. See website for more information.

N.B. The deadline for applications is 20 January 2019.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Want to know how music works?

mcg.uva.nl/howmusicworks
The University of Amsterdam offers two Master-level courses grouped under the name How Music Works. Several members of the Music Cognition Group contribute their various backgrounds to these courses, ranging from music theory and cognitive science to psychology and computer science. Next to outlining the theoretical underpinnings and presenting an up-to-date view of the field of music cognition, it provides practical hands-on classes presenting a variety of computational techniques and experimental designs.

See here for more information on all courses related to the Music Cognition Group (MCG@ILLC).

Interested in doing a PhD in the Humanities on a topic related to Music Cognition?


The aim of the NWO PhDs in the Humanities funding instrument is to increase the number of young talented researchers in the humanities, and to facilitate their progression on the academic career ladder. Deadline for proposals is 7 March 2019.

N.B. In January 2019 more information about the pre-selection procedure of the ILLC (UvA) will be announced. For now, see the link mentioned at the MCG@ILLC website for additional information or contact one of the MCG members via the p.a. of MCG <pa@musiccogntion.nl> to discuss possible topics. For logistic questions feel free to e-mail the ILLC office <phd-illc@uva.nl>.