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Sizing Up Vowels

August 25, 2011

New research suggests that different vowel sounds cue babies in to the size of objects.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Sizing up vowels…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Babies associate certain vowel sounds with small objects and other sounds with larger objects. This according to neuroscientist Marcela Peña of the Catholic University of Chile. When she and her colleagues played sounds that are produced when the tongue is near the front of the mouth, like “ee” and “ay”, babies spent more time looking at smaller objects.

MARCELA PEÑA (International School for Advanced Studies):

And when they listened to the syllable with “ah” and “oh”, they spent more time watching the larger object.

HIRSHON:

The researchers don’t yet know why babies do this or if they’re born with the ability. But they speculate that the relatively small size of the mouth opening when making “ee” and “ay” sounds compared to  “oh” and “ah” sounds may help cue babies in to the size of objects.

PEÑA:

For instance, in Spanish, ball you can say pelota. But if you want to say that it is really really small, you put peloteeeeta.

HIRSHON:

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.