Conceptual precursors to language

Abstract
Because human languages vary in sound and meaning, children must learn which distinctions their language uses. For speech perception, this learning is selective: initially infants are sensitive to most acoustic distinctions used in any language1–3, and this sensitivity reflects basic properties of the auditory system rather than mechanisms specific to language4–7; however, infants’ sensitivity to non-native sound distinctions declines over the course of the first year8. Here we ask whether a similar process governs learning of word meanings. We investigated the sensitivity of 5-month-old infants in an English-speaking environment to a conceptual distinction that is marked in Korean but not English; that is, the distinction between ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ fit of one object to another9,10. Like adult Korean speakers but unlike adult English speakers, these infants detected this distinction and divided a continuum of motion-into-contact actions into tightand loose-fit categories. Infants’ sensitivity to this distinction is linked to representations of object mechanics11that are shared by non-human animals12–14. Language learning therefore seems to develop by linking linguistic forms to universal, pre-existing representations of sound and meaning. Our research focuses on the crosscutting conceptual distinctions between actions producing loose- and tight-fitting contact relationships (compare left and right columns in Fig. 1a) and actions producing containment versus support relationships (compare first and second rows in Fig. 1a). As early as Korean and English children begin to talk about such actions, they categorize them differently from one another and similarly to Korean- and Englishspeaking adults9,15. Moreover, English and Korean adults differ in their performance on non-linguistic categorization tasks involving heterogeneous examples of these actions, in accord with the differing semantics of their languages16,17, whereas the performance of young children on such tasks has been mixed9,10,18,19..
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