Early Language Mapping: How Infants Learn Pronunciation

Why do Americans struggle with differentiating between the “shee” (“west”) and “chee” (“wife”) sounds in Mandarin?

Why do the Japanese struggle with the “l” and “r” sounds in “lake” and “rake”?

University of Washington speech professor Patricia Kuhl has the answer.

Map-Building

Having studied early language development for nearly three decades, Kuhl has a better understanding than most of how and when pronunciation and accents develop.

Before a baby even speaks her first word, a pattern of speaking has formed in the brain, based on her primary caregiver’s speech.

With American, Japanese, Swedish, and Russian infant participants, Kuhl found that vowel and consonant sounds of both native and foreign languages are clearly recognized by children between 6 to 8 months. 

That means an American infant can recognize and respond to the differences in “shee” and “chee,” while the Japanese infant will differentiate between “l” and “r” just as easily as an American.

Head-Turn Study

Kuhl used a “head-turn” study to identify whether infants could recognize these sounds.

While distracting an infant with a toy, the speaker would repeat a sound over and over – “la, la, la,” for instance.

The infant would continue watching the toy until she would hear a different sound mixed in – “la, la, ra”  – which would then light up the toy.

In anticipation of the reward, two-thirds of both Japanese and American 6- to 8-month-old infants would turn to look at the toy when the sound changed.

That ability was lost by the time the child reached one year.

Using the same sounds, a little over half of Japanese infants and nearly four-fifths of Americans would turn to look at the toy by the time the infants had reached a year.

The study concluded that this is when native sounds become the baby’s norm.

Magnet Effect

A Smithsonian article by Edwin Kiester, Jr., throws this map-building into further relief, with Kuhl describing the mapping of the baby’s language brain:

“The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic.”

A “magnet effect” further maps the native language, as prototypical sounds are absorbed and interpreted as native, while foreign sounds are discarded as “interference.” 

And what of infants born in bilingual households?

Those infant brains simply draw multiple maps, which is made easier if a specific language is spoken in the pitch, tone, and pronunciation of either caregiver.

This is why foreign languages are difficult to learn into adulthood: your language brain has long been mapped, and it’s a struggle to tune into sounds your brain wiring perceives as “interference.”

But this does not mean it’s impossible.

We’ll talk about the possibility next week.

How Does Culture Influence the Way We Use Our Brains? Find Out Here.

We’ve all heard of “right-brain” and “left-brain” thinkers.

Left-brain thinkers are thought to be more logical and mathematical, while right-brain thinkers tend to lean emotional and artistic.

But are there any links between the way our brains function and our cultures?

We’ve talked a lot about gene-culture coevolution over these past few weeks.

In short, the theory suggests that genetics and culture are interconnected.

This brain imaging study about visual perceptual tasks seems to substantiate that theory.

Individualist vs. Collective 

Psychological research has shown that individualist and collective values are demonstrated in an individual’s view of objects in relation to their context.

Americans, valuing individuality, tend to view the two as independent from each other.

East Asian cultures, which value the collective, view objects as contextually interdependent.

These differences have been shown to impact perception and memory by behavioral scientists.

The Study: How Our Brains Work

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a look at whether these cultural tendencies can be measured in brain activity patterns.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from a group of 20 participants – 10 from East Asia, 10 from the U.S. – McGovern Institute for Brain Research Professor John Gabrieli and his team examined participants’ mental operations.

Participants were asked to compare a sequence of images, and their mental operations were mapped via blood flow changes in the brain.

The images were lines within squares.

Participants were asked to compare each image with the previous image, making judgments based on relative judgments of interdependent objects or absolute judgments of individual objects without context.

For instance, some questions asked whether the lines were proportional to the squares, regardless of size (interdependent); others asked whether the lines were the same length as each other, regardless of the squares (independent of context).

The Results: Confirmed

While the simplicity of the task resulted in no differences in accuracy between the groups, brain activation patterns did differ.

Relative judgments, which have been shown to be harder for Americans, stimulated the brain regions dedicated to mental tasks that demand attention. 

These regions were less active for absolute judgments.

As you might guess, the results for the East Asian group were the opposite, with brain activity becoming more active for absolute judgments and less for relative.

The paper’s lead author, Trey Hedden, said of the study:

“We were surprised at the magnitude of the difference between the two cultural groups, and also at how widespread the engagement of the brain’s attention system became when making judgments outside the cultural comfort zone.”

Even more interesting, questionnaires had been distributed prior to the exam to see how closely each individual identified with their culture, using questions regarding values and norms.

Those individuals who identified more intimately with their culture’s values showed a stronger reactive pattern of brain activity relative to their culture.

This study suggests that our culture – and how closely we individually identify with our culture – can influence the way our minds work.

Pretty heady.

German vs. Japanese Nose: Scent Preferences = Food Preferences

Whether you like the smell of wintergreen or marzipan, cheese or fresh cut grass, lemon or borscht, your scent preferences are likely impacted by your culture.

Last week, we talked about how that which surrounds us often influences our favored scents.

It may be onions prompting attraction, cow manure implying success, or body odor indicating the spirit.

Whatever the case, our noses seem to know our culture.

First-World Cultures

Many of the scent preferences and concepts we discussed last week surrounded second- or third-world cultures, so we might expect the norms and preferences to differ more from those of first-world cultures than two first-world cultures would from each other.

But what happens when we compare the scent preferences of the first-world? Are they similar? Do first-world cultures like the same scents?

The short answer is no.

Of course, these are general claims; scent preferences differ depending on personal tastes.

But, generally…

Americans like the smell of wintergreen; the British don’t.

Germans like the smell of marzipan; the Japanese don’t.

The intrigue regarding these cultural differences in scent preferences led to a study that dove right into these comparisons. This is what it found.

Japan vs. Germany

Japanese researcher, Saho Ayabe-Kanamura, explored Japan and Germany’s differences in scent preferences and perception of everyday odors.

germanjapanesechart.jpg

As you can see in the chart, the study found that participants preferred fragrances of food odors that they thought most edible. They tended to rate these edible odors higher.

This is not unusual. We are what we eat. And the food we consume is often a deeply acquired part of primary socialization.

Slimy Snails

One example of this: I had dinner with an American senior manager at a French restaurant.

We decided to dive into French dining culture headfirst, and we ordered escargot as an appetizer.

I asked my American colleague: “So how does it taste?”

He answered: “For you, these are escargot. For me, they will stay what they have always been: slimy snails.”

Americans will probably always taste slimy snails when chewing on escargot, and this is due to their primary socialization.

The same goes with scent. Once a preference is set, it’s not very adaptable.