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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 1998 Jun;24(3):756-66.

Language discrimination by newborns: toward an understanding of the role of rhythm.

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  • 1Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique. Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France.


Three experiments investigated the ability of French newborns to discriminate between sets of sentences in different foreign languages. The sentences were low-pass filtered to reduce segmental information while sparing prosodic information. Infants discriminated between stress-timed English and mora-timed Japanese (Experiment 1) but failed to discriminate between stress-timed English and stress-timed Dutch (Experiment 2). In Experiment 3, infants heard different combinations of sentences from English, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Discrimination was observed only when English and Dutch sentences were contrasted with Spanish and Italian sentences. These results suggest that newborns use prosodic and, more specifically, rhythmic information to classify utterances into broad language classes defined according to global rhythmic properties. Implications of this for the acquisition of the rhythmic properties of the native language are discussed.

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