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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Statistical language learning in neonates revealed by event-related brain potentials

Tuomas Teinonen12*, Vineta Fellman34, Risto Näätänen156, Paavo Alku7 and Minna Huotilainen12

Author Affiliations

1 Cognitive Brain Research Unit, Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

2 Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research, University of Jyväskylä, Jyväskylä, Finland

3 Department of Pediatrics, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland

4 Department of Pediatrics, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

5 Department of Psychology, University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia

6 Centre of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

7 Department of Signal Processing and Acoustics, Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo, Finland

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:21  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-21

Published: 13 March 2009

Abstract

Background

Statistical learning is a candidate for one of the basic prerequisites underlying the expeditious acquisition of spoken language. Infants from 8 months of age exhibit this form of learning to segment fluent speech into distinct words. To test the statistical learning skills at birth, we recorded event-related brain responses of sleeping neonates while they were listening to a stream of syllables containing statistical cues to word boundaries.

Results

We found evidence that sleeping neonates are able to automatically extract statistical properties of the speech input and thus detect the word boundaries in a continuous stream of syllables containing no morphological cues. Syllable-specific event-related brain responses found in two separate studies demonstrated that the neonatal brain treated the syllables differently according to their position within pseudowords.

Conclusion

These results demonstrate that neonates can efficiently learn transitional probabilities or frequencies of co-occurrence between different syllables, enabling them to detect word boundaries and in this way isolate single words out of fluent natural speech. The ability to adopt statistical structures from speech may play a fundamental role as one of the earliest prerequisites of language acquisition.