Language Discrimination by Human Newborns and by Cotton-Top Tamarin Monkeys

Science  14 Apr 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5464, pp. 349-351
DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5464.349

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Humans, but no other animal, make meaningful use of spoken language. What is unclear, however, is whether this capacity depends on a unique constellation of perceptual and neurobiological mechanisms or whether a subset of such mechanisms is shared with other organisms. To explore this problem, parallel experiments were conducted on human newborns and cotton-top tamarin monkeys to assess their ability to discriminate unfamiliar languages. A habituation-dishabituation procedure was used to show that human newborns and tamarins can discriminate sentences from Dutch and Japanese but not if the sentences are played backward. Moreover, the cues for discrimination are not present in backward speech. This suggests that the human newborns' tuning to certain properties of speech relies on general processes of the primate auditory system.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: f.ramus{at}

  • Present address: Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AR, UK.

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