Article thumbnail

Language discrimination by human newborns and by cotton-top tamarin monkeys

By Franck Ramus, Marc D. Hauser, Cory Miller, Dylan Morris and Jacques Mehler


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 are shared with other organisms. To explore this problem, we conducted parallel experiments on human newborns and cotton-top tamarin monkeys to assess their ability to discriminate unfamiliar languages. Using a habituation-dishabituation procedure, we show that human newborns and tamarins can discriminate sentences from Dutch and Japanese, but not if the sentences are played backwards. 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

Topics: Animal Cognition, Evolution, Primatology, Cognitive Psychology, Comparative Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Phonology, Psycholinguistics
Publisher: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Year: 2000
OAI identifier:

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.

Suggested articles


  1. (1987). in Categorical perception: The groundwork of cognition
  2. In the English-Japanese discrimination experiments by Nazzi et al. (11), the variability due to the 4 voices was much reduced by low-pass filtering the stimuli. In other experiments (10), a single bilingual speaker was used.
  3. (1988). Language and Problems of Knowledge.
  4. (1997). Mental retardation and developmental disabilities research reviews 3,
  5. Seven additional babies were tested, and their results were discarded due to: crying or agitated (1), sleeping or insufficient sucking after the switch (4), loss of the pacifier after the switch (2).
  6. (1996). The evolution of communication
  7. The fact that newborns fail under this very condition in Experiment 1A is likely due to their immature auditory system, since susceptibility to speaker variability seems to resolve a few months after birth (25).
  8. (1994). The Language Instinct. (William Morrow
  9. (1996). The MBROLA Project: Towards a set of high-quality speech synthesizers free of use for non-commercial purposes, ICSLP’96,
  10. (1999). The production of this kind of stimuli is described in great detail in
  11. The slight tendency for babies in the control group to suck more overall than those in the experimental group, though visible on Figure 1A, is not significant [F(1,31)=2.6,
  12. The tendency for babies in the control group to suck more than those in the experimental group during the habituation phase is not significant [F(1,31)=2.7,