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Born with a love of speech

Do human newborns develop their preference for speech through in-utero eavesdropping, or is their penchant for speech innate? It's a bedevilling question to test, but one that's central to understanding the origins and dynamics of humans unique propensity for speech. Now a McGill University psychologist believes she's separated out the complicating effects of the uterine sound barrier. And the results, says Dr. Athena Vouloumanos, point to a genetic predilection for listening in on speech above other similar sounds.

"It's well established that neonates have a preference for speech above other sounds, but where does this come from? Is it something that's built in and there's something about the speech signal that they're tuned to listen to without the benefit of experience, or does it come from their prenatal experience in the womb? I think we've shown that there's an experience-independent component to newborns' preference for speech," says Dr. Vouloumanos, an Assistant Professor in McGill's Department of Psychology in Montreal, Canada.

She'll be presenting the findings of her latest research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, February 17th.

Neural and cochlear development is such that at about six months gestation the fetus begin to hear a range of frequencies. Thus, there's the possibility that newborns preferentially listen to speech because they're used to it from their in-utero tuning-in.

But, which speech sounds actually get through the uterine sound barrier to the fetus? According to Dr. Vouloumanos, the best evidence indicates that the uterine environment acts as a low-pass filter. This means that only very low, deep sounds ?those below about 400 Hertz ?make it to a fetus' ear.

Dr. Vouloumanos and colleagues developed a painstaking two part experimental procedure to separate out possible in-utero exposure from innate predisposition.

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Source:Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council


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