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Human brain works heavy statistics learning language

A team at the University of Rochester has found that the human brain makes much more extensive use of highly complex statistics when learning a language than scientists ever realized. The research, appearing in a recent issue of Cognitive Psychology, shows that the human brain is wired to quickly grasp certain relationships between spoken sounds even though those relationships may be so complicated they're beyond our ability to consciously comprehend.

"We're starting to learn just how intuitively our minds are able to analyze amazingly complex information without our even being aware of it," says Elissa Newport, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University and lead author of the study. "There is a powerful correlation between what our brains are able to do and what language demands of us."

Newport and Richard Aslin, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, began by looking at how people are able to recognize the division between spoken words when spoken language is really a stream of unbroken syllables. They wanted to know how it is that we perceive breaks between spoken words, when in fact there are no pauses. This is why it often seems as if speakers of foreign languages are talking very quickly; we don't perceive pauses.

So how is a baby supposed to make out where one word begins and another ends? Newport and Aslin devised a test where babies and adults listened to snippets of a synthetic language: a few syllables arranged into nonsense words and played in random order for 20 minutes. During that time, the listeners were taking in information about the syllables, such as how often each occurred, and how often they occurred in relation to other syllables. For instance, in the real words "pretty baby," the syllable "pre" is followed by "ty," which happens more frequently in English than the syllable "ty" being followed by "ba"--thus the brain notes that "ty" is more likely to be associated with "pre" than with "ba," and so we h
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Contact: Jonathan Sherwood
jonathan.sherwood@rochester.edu
585-758-9510
University of Rochester
4-May-2004


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