New SNSF Project on Native Accents in Infant’s cries
Prof. Dr. Alexis Hervais-Adelman, Associate Investigator for the NCCR Evolving Language, has been awarded a SNSF grant for his project on Native Accents in Infants’ Cries.
Title: Native Accents in Infants’ Cries – A primitive mechanism to optimise caregiver responses, and the foundation of spoken language
Summary: Over the last decade evidence has begun to mount indicating that newborn babies, as young as a day old, produce cries with an accent that is influenced by the dominant language of their gestational environment. The fact that newborns cry with an accent is remarkable, as it suggests that a gestating fetus develops articulatory motor patterns in utero, well before what we usually consider to be the onset of speech. This project aims to establish why and how this happens. We will undertake a large-scale behavioural and neuroimaging investigation to establish whether accented cries are beneficial to infants, for instance, by making them more attractive or salient to potential caregivers who share that accent. In parallel, this project will use in utero neuroimaging to examine the brain mechanisms that enable a gestating fetus to map speech sounds onto articulatory motor patterns before birth. The implication that prenatal determinants of learning to cry may shape the development of infant vocalisation has profound ramifications for our understanding of the evolution of speech as a communicative modality and will contribute to the ongoing debate of why the dominant human communication mode is speech, rather than gesture.