To better understand the human capacity for language, Northeastern psychology professor Iris Berent is searching for common sound patterns—simple syllables like “ba”—that are universally preferred across all human languages.
This research into language patterns is being funded by a $1 million grant that Berent transferred with her when she moved to Northeastern from her previous institution, Florida Atlantic University, last year. Her work has been continuously funded for over 14 years by grants from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders.
Linguists have shown that, across the world’s languages, certain sound-patterns occur more frequently than others.
“Patterns such as ‘bna’ are far more frequent than patterns such as ‘lba,’” Berent explains. Although there are many possible explanations for this, she is intrigued by the possibility, suggested by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, that the patterns reflect a special instinct humans have for language.
This instinct allows only certain patterns to occur in human languages, says Berent, and these restrictions are active universally, in the brains of all speakers.
For many years, this possibility has been examined using mostly theoretical arguments. Berent has shown how the issue can be addressed using standard experimental techniques of cognitive psychology.
To this end, she asks Northeastern undergraduates to take part in simple psychological experiments, which involve listening to sound sequences, including sounds like “bnif” and “lbif,” that do not occur in their own language, but do occur in other world languages. Some of the sounds occur frequently; others less so.
Her goal is to determine whether the students favor the sound-patterns that are preferred in other languages, compared to those that are less popular, despite having heard none of the sequences before.
To determine if such preferences are universal, she conducts similar experiments with speakers of other languages, including Russian, Hebrew, Korean and Spanish, through a network of international collaborations with various institutions.
Berent started her academic career in a seemingly unrelated discipline—music. As an undergraduate, Berent, who is from Haifa, Israel, was on track to become a concert flutist. But she couldn’t ignore, she says, the “questions in the back of my mind” about how people perceive music.
After earning two undergraduate degrees in flute performance and musicology, she moved to Mexico City with her husband, a violinist and Mexico native. She traveled to northeast Mexico to study an ancient indigenous tribe, the Huastecas, to learn how they came to love their own unique form of music.
“I wanted to find how these people perceive their own music and why different musical idioms seem to share some important properties,” she recalls.
She soon realized, however, that she needed a broader understanding of music structure as well as tools to study how the mind works.
It wasn’t until she and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, where Berent enrolled in two University of Pittsburgh graduate programs—one in psychology and the other in music theory—that she decided to focus her studies on language. Language is easier to study than music, she says, because the field of linguistics is more developed than that of music theory.
Currently, Berent is writing a book on her studies of the phonological mind, to be published by Cambridge University Press, while continuing her research and teaching a Psychology of Language course.