First and last syllables

Have you wondered why rhyme and alliteration are so common and pleasing, why they assist memorization? They seem to be taking advantage of the way words are ‘filed’ in the brain.

A ScienceDaily item (here) looks at a paper on how babies hear syllables. (Alissa L. Ferry, Ana Fló, Perrine Brusini, Luigi Cattarossi, Francesco Macagno, Marina Nespor, Jacques Mehler. On the edge of language acquisition: inherent constraints on encoding multisyllabic sequences in the neonate brain. Developmental Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/desc.12323).

It is known that our cognitive system recognizes the first and last syllables of words better than middle syllables. For example there is a trick of being able to read print where the middle of the words are changed. It has also been noted that the edges of words are often information rich, especially with grammatical information.

This paper shows that this is a feature of our brains from birth – no need to learn it.At just two days after birth, babies are already able to process language using processes similar to those of adults. SISSA researchers have demonstrated that they are sensitive to the most important parts of words, the edges, a cognitive mechanism which has been repeatedly observed in older children and adults.” The babies were also sensitive to the very short pause between words as a way to tell when one word ends and another begins.

Here is the abstract: “To understand language, humans must encode information from rapid, sequential streams of syllables – tracking their order and organizing them into words, phrases, and sentences. We used Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS) to determine whether human neonates are born with the capacity to track the positions of syllables in multisyllabic sequences. After familiarization with a six-syllable sequence, the neonate brain responded to the change (as shown by an increase in oxy-hemoglobin) when the two edge syllables switched positions but not when two middle syllables switched positions (Experiment 1), indicating that they encoded the syllables at the edges of sequences better than those in the middle. Moreover, when a 25ms pause was inserted between the middle syllables as a segmentation cue, neonates’ brains were sensitive to the change (Experiment 2), indicating that subtle cues in speech can signal a boundary, with enhanced encoding of the syllables located at the edges of that boundary. These findings suggest that neonates’ brains can encode information from multisyllabic sequences and that this encoding is constrained. Moreover, subtle segmentation cues in a sequence of syllables provide a mechanism with which to accurately encode positional information from longer sequences. Tracking the order of syllables is necessary to understand language and our results suggest that the foundations for this encoding are present at birth.

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