Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants

Alissa L. Ferry*, Susan J. Hespos, Sandra R. Waxman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Language is a signature of our species and our primary conduit for conveying the contents of our minds. The power of language derives not only from the exquisite detail of the signal itself but also from its intricate link to human cognition. To acquire a language, infants must identify which signals are part of their language and discover how these signals are linked to meaning. At birth, infants prefer listening to vocalizations of human and nonhuman primates; within 3 mo, this initially broad listening preference is tuned specifically to human vocalizations. Moreover, even at this early developmental point, human vocalizations evoke more than listening preferences alone: they engender in infants a heightened focus on the objects in their visual environment and promote the formation of object categories, a fundamental cognitive capacity. Here, we illuminate the developmental origin of this early link between human vocalizations and cognition. We document that this link emerges from a broad biological template that initially encompasses vocalizations of human and nonhuman primates (but not backward speech) and that within 6 mo this link to cognition is tuned specifically to human vocalizations. At 3 and 4 mo, nonhuman primate vocalizations promote object categorization, mirroring precisely the advantages conferred by human vocalizations, but by 6 mo, nonhuman primate vocalizations no longer exert this advantageous effect. This striking developmental shift illuminates a path of specialization that supports infants as they forge the foundational links between human language and the core cognitive processes that will serve as the foundations of meaning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15231-15235
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number38
StatePublished - Oct 17 2013


  • Conceptual development
  • Developmental tuning
  • Infancy
  • Language acquisition
  • Language and thought

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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