12th Annual Lecture
April 16, 2010
Cohen Hall Auditorium
Cracking the Speech Code: Language and the Infant Brain
Some of the most revolutionary ideas in brain science are coming from cribs and nurseries. In this talk I will focus on new discoveries about early learning and the neural coding of learned information with special attention to language. Infants are born “citizens of the world” and can acquire any language easily. Until the age of 6 months, they discriminate the phonetic contrasts of all languages, something their parents are unable to do. By the end of the first year of life, infants show nascent specialization. Neural sensitivity to native-language phonetic units increases while the ability to discern phonetic differences in other languages declines. Research on infants shows they “crack the speech code” using computational skills, but also that social interaction plays a significant role in the process. Early precursors to language in typically developing infants are leading to the identification of children at risk for developmental disabilities involving language, such as children with autism. In the next decade, the techniques of modern neuroscience will play a significant role in our understanding of the neurobiology of language acquisition, and perhaps reveal principles of how children learn more generally.