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Annu Rev Psychol. 1999;50:509-35.

Influences on infant speech processing: toward a new synthesis.

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Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


To comprehend and produce language, we must be able to recognize the sound patterns of our language and the rules for how these sounds "map on" to meaning. Human infants are born with a remarkable array of perceptual sensitivities that allow them to detect the basic properties that are common to the world's languages. During the first year of life, these sensitivities undergo modification reflecting an exquisite tuning to just that phonological information that is needed to map sound to meaning in the native language. We review this transition from language-general to language-specific perceptual sensitivity that occurs during the first year of life and consider whether the changes propel the child into word learning. To account for the broad-based initial sensitivities and subsequent reorganizations, we offer an integrated transactional framework based on the notion of a specialized perceptual-motor system that has evolved to serve human speech, but which functions in concert with other developing abilities. In so doing, we highlight the links between infant speech perception, babbling, and word learning.

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