The existence of biological bases of language, which precedes language learning in humans, has been hypothesized by linguists.
David Gomez, a SISSA research scientist working under the supervision of Jacques Mehler and first author of the paper, and his co-workers decided to observe the brain activity of newborns.
Gomez said that in fact, if it is possible to demonstrate that these preferences are already present within days from birth, when the newborn baby is still unable to speak and presumably has very limited language knowledge, then we can infer that there is an inborn bias that prefers certain words to others.
During the experiments the newborns would listen to words starting with normally "preferred" sounds (like "bl") and others with uncommon sounds ("lb"). "What we found was that the newborns' brains reacted in a significantly different manner to the two types of sound" continues Marina Nespor, a SISSA neuroscientist who participated in the study.
Gomez said that the brain regions that are activated while the newborns are listening react differently in the two cases, and reflect the preferences observed across languages, as well as the behavioural responses recorded in similar experiments carried out in adults.
The study has been published in the journal PNAS.