Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Human brain works heavy statistics learning language

05.05.2004


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 hear a pause between those two syllables.

After listening to the synthesized string of syllables for the full 20 minutes, adults were played some of the invented words along with some words made up of syllables from the beginning and ending of words--like "ty-ba." More than 85 percent of the time, adults were able to recognize words from non-words. Five-year-olds also reacted definitively to words and non-words, showing that the human mind is wired to statistically track how often certain sounds arise in relationship to other sounds.

"If you were given paper and a calculator, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out the statistics involved," says Newport. "Yet after listening for a while, certain syllables just pop out at you and you start imagining pauses between the ’words.’ It’s a reflection of the fact that somewhere in your brain you’re actually absorbing and processing a staggering amount of information."

Newport and Aslin take the research a step farther in the Cognitive Psychology piece. Language does not only consist of relationships between adjacent syllables or other language elements. For instance, in the sentence, "He is going," the element "is" is linked to the element "ing," even though they are not adjacent to each other. Newport and Aslin devised a new, more complex, synthetic language where three-syllable words had constant first and last syllables, but the middle syllable was interchangeable. Despite being somewhat similar to the original test, "people were terrible at this," notes Newport. One test subject never identified a single pattern, despite taking the test numerous times.

Though the new test was significantly more complicated than the first, Newport and Aslin were surprised that people performed so poorly. The team looked carefully at the non-adjacent aspects of languages, like Hebrew, which is replete with non-adjacent elements, and discovered that while whole syllables were rarely related in this way, vowels and consonants often were. They restructured the test so that the invented words had consistent consonants and variable vowels--like "ring", "rang," and "rung." Immediately, test scores skyrocketed. People were able to distinguish the regularity of certain consonant relationships and use them to properly divide the stream of sounds into words even though the statistics involved were at least as complicated as the earlier test that was universally failed.

Even switching the roles of consonants and vowels so that the vowels remained steady as the consonants varied, resulted in the test subjects picking out the words with great accuracy. Turkish, as an example, uses this "vowel harmony" quite regularly.

"These results suggest that human learning ability is not just limited to a few elementary computations, but encompasses a variety of mechanisms," says Newport. "A question to explore now is: How complex and extensive are these learning mechanisms, and what kinds of computational abilities do people bring to the process of learning languages?"


The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Jonathan Sherwood | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.rochester.edu/

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Self-organising system enables motile cells to form complex search pattern
07.05.2019 | Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

nachricht Mouse studies show minimally invasive route can accurately administer drugs to brain
02.05.2019 | Johns Hopkins Medicine

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: MPSD team discovers light-induced ferroelectricity in strontium titanate

Light can be used not only to measure materials’ properties, but also to change them. Especially interesting are those cases in which the function of a material can be modified, such as its ability to conduct electricity or to store information in its magnetic state. A team led by Andrea Cavalleri from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Hamburg used terahertz frequency light pulses to transform a non-ferroelectric material into a ferroelectric one.

Ferroelectricity is a state in which the constituent lattice “looks” in one specific direction, forming a macroscopic electrical polarisation. The ability to...

Im Focus: Determining the Earth’s gravity field more accurately than ever before

Researchers at TU Graz calculate the most accurate gravity field determination of the Earth using 1.16 billion satellite measurements. This yields valuable knowledge for climate research.

The Earth’s gravity fluctuates from place to place. Geodesists use this phenomenon to observe geodynamic and climatological processes. Using...

Im Focus: Tube anemone has the largest animal mitochondrial genome ever sequenced

Discovery by Brazilian and US researchers could change the classification of two species, which appear more akin to jellyfish than was thought.

The tube anemone Isarachnanthus nocturnus is only 15 cm long but has the largest mitochondrial genome of any animal sequenced to date, with 80,923 base pairs....

Im Focus: Tiny light box opens new doors into the nanoworld

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have discovered a completely new way of capturing, amplifying and linking light to matter at the nanolevel. Using a tiny box, built from stacked atomically thin material, they have succeeded in creating a type of feedback loop in which light and matter become one. The discovery, which was recently published in Nature Nanotechnology, opens up new possibilities in the world of nanophotonics.

Photonics is concerned with various means of using light. Fibre-optic communication is an example of photonics, as is the technology behind photodetectors and...

Im Focus: Cost-effective and individualized advanced electronic packaging in small batches now available

Fraunhofer IZM is joining the EUROPRACTICE IC Service platform. Together, the partners are making fan-out wafer level packaging (FOWLP) for electronic devices available and affordable even in small batches – and thus of interest to research institutes, universities, and SMEs. Costs can be significantly reduced by up to ten customers implementing individual fan-out wafer level packaging for their ICs or other components on a multi-project wafer. The target group includes any organization that does not produce in large quantities, but requires prototypes.

Research always means trying things out and daring to do new things. Research institutes, universities, and SMEs do not produce in large batches, but rather...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

SEMANTiCS 2019 brings together industry leaders and data scientists in Karlsruhe

29.04.2019 | Event News

Revered mathematicians and computer scientists converge with 200 young researchers in Heidelberg!

17.04.2019 | Event News

First dust conference in the Central Asian part of the earth’s dust belt

15.04.2019 | Event News

 
Latest News

Concert of magnetic moments

14.06.2019 | Information Technology

Materials informatics reveals new class of super-hard alloys

14.06.2019 | Materials Sciences

New imaging modality targets cholesterol in arterial plaque

14.06.2019 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>