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Use the following passage to answer the questions below.
Infants are born as scientists, constantly interacting with and questioning the world around them. However, as any good scientist knows, simply making observations is not sufficient; a large part of learning is dependent on being able to communicate ideas, observations, and feelings with others. Though most infants do not produce discernible words until around age one or one-and-a-half, they begin gaining proficiency in their native languages long before that. In fact, many linguists agree that a newborn baby’s brain is already pre-programmed for language acquisition, meaning that it’s as natural for a baby to talk as it is for a dog to dig.
According to psycholinguist Anne Cutler, an infant’s language acquisition actually begins well before birth. At only one day old, newborns have demonstrated the ability to recognize the voices and rhythms heard during their last trimester in the muffled confines of the womb. In general, infants are more likely to attend to a specific voice stream if they perceive it as more familiar than other streams. Newborns tend to be especially partial to their mother’s voice and her native language, as opposed to another woman or another language. For example, when an infant is presented with a voice stream spoken by his mother and a background stream delivered by an unfamiliar voice, he will effortlessly attend to his mother while ignoring the background stream. Therefore, by using these simple yet important cues, and others like them, infants can easily learn the essential characteristics and rules of their native language.
However, it is important to note that an infant’s ability to learn from the nuances of her mother’s speech is predicated upon her ability to separate that speech from the sounds of the dishwasher, the family dog, the bus stopping on the street outside, and, quite possibly, other streams of speech, like a newscaster on the television down the hall or siblings playing in an adjacent room. Infants are better able to accomplish this task when the voice of interest is louder than any of the competing background noises. Conversely, when two voices are of equal amplitude, infants typically demonstrate little preference for one stream over the other. Researchers have hypothesized that because an infant’s ability to selectively pay attention to one voice or sound, even in a mix of others, has not fully developed yet, the infant is actually interpreting competing voice streams that are equally loud as one single stream with unfamiliar patterns and sounds.
During the first few months after birth, infants will subconsciously study the language being used around them, taking note of the rhythmic patterns, the sequences of sounds, and the intonation of the language. Newborns will also start to actively process how things like differences in pitch or accented syllables further affect meaning. Interestingly, up until six months of age, they can still recognize and discriminate between the phonemes (single units of sound in a language like “ba” or “pa”) of other languages. Though infants do display a preference for the language they heard in utero, most infants are not biased towards the specific phonemes of that language.
This ability to recognize and discriminate between all phonemes comes to an end by the middle of their first year, at which point infants start displaying a preference for phonemes in their native language, culminating at age one, when they stop responding to foreign phonemes altogether. This is part of what is known as the “critical period,” which begins at birth and lasts until puberty. During this period, as the brain continues to grow and change, language acquisition is instinctual, explaining why young children seem to pick up languages so easily.
D: The author presented a factual description of several aspects of infant language acquisition, which matches choice (D). (A) and (C) are incorrect because the passage doesn’t identify a “recent medical discovery” or “new break-through.” (B) is incorrect because, although some of the steps in the process of language acquisition are described in the text, the history of the research into this process is not.
C: Keep the purpose of the passage in mind, then review the passage map and predict a reason the author included the third paragraph. Within the discussion of language acquisition in infants, the third paragraph describes the importance of the volume of the mother’s voice over the other background sounds. This prediction matches (C), the correct answer. Choice (A) subtly distorts the information in the paragraph. The ability of a baby to identify a specific speech stream is not connected to the speed of language acquisition. (B) is an opposite choice; louder volumes of speech assist, not impede, language acquisition. (D) is not discussed in the passage; no data is supplied to connect the improvement in language acquisition to different volumes of speech.
B: The clues in the question stem point to paragraph 4, where the author mentions “rhythmic patterns” and “differences in pitch or accented syllables.” That paragraph begins, “During the first few months after birth,” which directly matches with correct choice (B). (A), (C), and (D), the incorrect answers, all contain different ages of children that are mentioned in the passage, but each is associated with a different phase of language acquisition, not the stage mentioned in the question.
C: Paragraph 3 discusses how infants have difficulty separating voice streams that have equal volumes, as well as how important it is for infants to recognize their mother’s speech in order to learn from it. Thus, it makes sense that a mother would aid her infant’s language acquisition by speaking louder than any background sounds, which makes (C) correct. (A) and (B) are distortions of information in the passage, making them incorrect. Although the passage mentions that young children learn languages easily, the text never recommends exposing children to multiple languages. Similarly, phonemes are discussed, but using phonemes to assist children in learning to speak is not. (D), using a large vocabulary, is never mentioned in the text, and so is incorrect.
A: The author discusses phonemes in the fourth and fifth paragraphs, identifying two distinct ways that infants respond to phonemes. In paragraph 4, the author notes that infants can recognize phonemes from other languages until six months of age, while in paragraph 5, infants stop responding to foreign phonemes altogether in the “critical period.” Thus, the purpose of this discussion is to highlight some important stages in the process of language acquisition, as in correct choice (A). (B) and (C) are not mentioned in the text, and so are incorrect. (D) is incorrect because volume is discussed earlier in the passage where phonemes are not the topic.