Language discrimination by newborns: Teasing apart phonotactic, rhythmic, and intonational cues
Speech rhythm has long been claimed to be a useful bootstrapping cue in the very first steps of language acquisition. Previous studies have suggested that newborn infants do categorize varieties of speech rhythm, as demonstrated by their ability to discriminate between certain languages. However, the existing evidence is not unequivocal: in previous studies, stimuli discriminated by newborns always contained additional speech cues on top of rhythm. Here, we conducted a series of experiments assessing discrimination between Dutch and Japanese by newborn infants, using a speech resynthesis technique to progressively degrade non-rhythmical properties of the sentences. When the stimuli are resynthesized using identical phonemes and artificial intonation contours for the two languages, thereby preserving only their rhythmic and broad phonotactic structure, newborns still seem to be able to discriminate between the two languages, but the effect is weaker than when intonation is present. This leaves open the possibility that the temporal correlation between intonational and rhythmic cues might actually facilitate the processing of speech rhythm.