Mother reading to child

The Linguistic Genius of Babies

 

I recently stumbled across a very interesting study, to which there is even a TED talk (http://youtu.be/G2XBlkHW954). I did not want to keep the fascinating results from you.

Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues have exposed babies to different sounds and „rewarded“ them (they are allowed to watch a cute teddy bear drumming on a plastic drum), if they have recognised and turned their head to a new sound.

At the age of about 6-8 months, the babies could recognise all the sounds of all languages perfectly. Already at the age of 10-12 months they had “zeroed in” on their own language and were only able to distinguish the sounds of that language, but no more those of other languages.

For example, when Japanese babies were examined in comparison to American babies, they were on the same level with how well they could distinguish the English sounds r and l at the age of 6-8 months. After 10-12 months, the American babies had zeroed in on the r and l sounds and could distinguish them better than before. However, the Japanese babies had zeroed in on Japanese, in which language these sounds do not occur in the same form, and were significantly worse at distinguishing the r and l sounds.

 

Figure 1: The discernment of the sounds r and l of Japanese and American babies each after 6-8 and 10-12 months. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

Figure 1: The discernment of the sounds r and l of Japanese and American babies each after 6-8 and 10-12 months. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

 

As a subsequent attempt, Kuhl and her colleagues placed American babies, in the critical period between six and ten months, in the laboratory with a Mandarin native speaker who spoke and read to them for 12 sessions. Afterwards these babies were just as good at distinguishing two Mandarin sounds as Taiwanese babies that had been exposed to the language for 10 months.

Figure 2: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. The triangles represent American babies who were exposed to either Mandarin or English for 12 sessions.

Figure 2: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. The triangles represent American babies who were exposed to either Mandarin or English for 12 sessions.

Kuhl describes the babies as little statisticians who „zero in” on sounds that are often presented to them. If they are exposed to Mandarin sounds they learn to distinguish them just as well.

Fascinatingly, the sounds have to be presented to the babies by people. When the babies only heard the sounds on the television or over the radio for 12 sessions, there was no improvement of the recognition of Mandarin sounds at all.

Figure 3: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. “TV” and “Audio” represent babies that were exposed to Mandarin via TV and the radio for 12 sessions. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

Figure 3: The discernment of two Mandarin sounds of Taiwanese and American babies. “TV” and “Audio” represent babies that were exposed to Mandarin via TV and the radio for 12 sessions. Source: Video clip from the TED talk.

 

What do we learn from this?

  1. We adults are unfortunately already „zeroed in” on the sounds of our language. On the one hand, this makes the learning of foreign languages harder for us. On the other hand, as opposed to babies, we can use the ability to read and write and the knowledge we have collected in our lives so far, which is an even greater advantage.

In any case, we must be very careful to listen to the sounds of the language and reproduce them properly. Otherwise we will apprehend the sounds of a foreign language with a sound interpretation of our mother tongue. A fun self-test if you master English well: Have a listen to this video and read the subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMdiVyzI7eY

Even though the sounds are actually Korean, we do rather understand similar sounding English sounds. Therefore, it is very important not to always trust our ears and to train them to also reprehend fine sound differences. Soon there will be a guide with helpful methods in another article in this blog.

  1. Interaction with real people is essential and seems to lead to much greater success than the input of impersonal media such as television or audio. In the end, we learn a language to be able to speak with people. According to Kuhl, the „social brain“ plays a very big role in language. So why not take the opportunity and try to receive language input from real people and through social contact.

 

 

Again, here is the whole TED talk to watch for yourself:

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