Take a minute to contemplate a sentence: Individually, each letter of each word doesn’t hold much significance. But put them together into words, organize those words into sentences, and then these symbols convey meaning.
You may never have seen the specific string of words in a given sentence before, but because you understand the abstract rules of language, your mind is able to figure out what the sentence is communicating. However, if the letters are shuffled around into gibberish that do not adhere to rules, you may not glean any sort of meaning from them.
The capacity for language is thought to be a key attribute that sets humans apart from other species on our planet. And humans seem to be pretty good at learning language from an early age. But scientists have debated why infants are so adept at that kind of learning.
That question has long been confounding because babies could be learning language by hearing their parents and others talk even before being born—and before scientists can study their behavior and comprehension. Are infants’ brains specially tuned to language, or is it simply speech that attracts their attention?
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Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University.