The mechanisms underlying the discovery of abstract rules like those found in natural language may be evolutionarily tuned to speech, according to previous research. When infants hear speech sounds, they can learn rules that govern their combination, but when they hear non-speech sounds such as sine-wave tones, they fail to do so. Here we show that infants' rule learning is not tied to speech per se, but is instead enhanced more broadly by communicative signals. In two experiments, infants succeeded in learning and generalizing rules from tones that were introduced as if they could be used to communicate. In two control experiments, infants failed to learn the very same rules when familiarized to tones outside of a communicative exchange. These results reveal that infants' attention to social agents and communication catalyzes a fundamental achievement of human learning.
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