During the first months of life, human infants process phonemic elements from all languages similarly. However, by 12 months of age, as language-specific phonemic maps are established, infants respond preferentially to their native language. This process, known as perceptual narrowing, supports neural representation and thus efficient processing of the distinctive phonemes within the sound environment. Although oscillatory mechanisms underlying processing of native and non-native phonemic contrasts were recently delineated in 6-month-old infants, the maturational trajectory of these mechanisms remained unclear. A group of typically developing infants born into monolingual English families, were followed from 6 to 12 months and presented with English and Spanish syllable contrasts varying in voice-onset time. Brain responses were recorded with high-density electroencephalogram, and sources of event-related potential generators identified at right and left auditory cortices at 6 and 12 months and also at frontal cortex at 6 months. Time-frequency analyses conducted at source level found variations in both θ and γ ranges across age. Compared with 6-month-olds, 12-month-olds’ responses to native phonemes showed smaller and faster phase synchronization and less spectral power in the θ γ range, and increases in left phase synchrony as well as induced high γ activity in both frontal and left auditory sources. These results demonstrate that infants become more automatized and efficient in processing their native language as they approach 12 months of age via the interplay between θ and oscillations. We suggest that, while θ oscillations support syllable processing, γ oscillations underlie phonemic perceptual narrowing, progressively favoring mapping of native over non-native language across the first year of life.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Perceptual narrowing
- Phonemic mapping
- Source localization
- Time-frequency analyses