Do sounds have inherent meanings or connotations that influence the development of language? The results of a new study covered on Science Daily suggest that they might – that is, that there are certain sounds that we instinctively associate with specific physical characteristics, like “larger” or “smaller.”
In the article, Marcela Peña of the International School for Advanced Studies explained that the study sought to answer some big questions:
“What is the nature of language? Is everything symbolic or arbitrary? Or are there particular physical aspects of learning that we exploit” to begin to make sense of a large, complex, and — for a tiny infant — brand-new world.”
To find out, the researchers tested 28 four-month-old infants to see if they associated certain sounds with concepts like “larger” or “smaller.” The babies, all from Spanish-speaking homes, were exposed to a variety of meaningless combinations of consonants and vowel sounds, along with a variety of shapes of differing sizes.
All the while, researchers tracked which shapes the babies were looking at, and how long they spent staring at each object. Apparently, the babies spent more time looking at the smaller-sized shapes when the vowels “I” and “E” were played, and more time looking at the larger ones when they heard “A” and “O” sounds.
What does this mean? Researcher Peña broke down the implications of the results for Science Daily:
“We don’t know if this is something we are born with or something we have to learn — but it is a very early capacity,” Peña says. She stresses that “the baby is not learning the word — bigger, smaller, ball, triangle — itself.” Rather, she or he is “exploiting the physical properties of a sound to help categorize another [abstract] property of the environment.”