Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies

Here’s a talk on TED I thought I would share. I’m a student of linguistics and I think this is far fetched myself. What do you guys think?

I am not convinced that our ability to learn languages deteriorates from the age of 10 to the age of 60. I have seen too many people. from unilingual families who learn to speak difficult (for them) languages while in their twenties or even later.

I do not doubt that listening to a human being live, rather than via audio or TV is more powerful for a baby. I suspect however that adults do better with audio since their learning process is much more deliberate than that of the child, with the advantages and disadvantages that this implies.

Let me live in Germany

Give me two German “parents” that correct me every time I mess up. Let all my friends be other students who may only communicate in German at all times.

Let me only listen, speak, and write in German.

Watch how little time it takes me as an adult to learn.

I think, if given the scenario above, one could learn a foreign language at a remarkably fast rate. Though Benny can’t really live up to his “fluent in 3 months” claim, he shows that you can learn A LOT in a short amount of time.

Notice in the graph, it said “Age of acquisition of new language”. The speaker then said “learning a second language”.

I am not sure how she can test babies learning a second language.

I think that it is easier for young children to pick up native like pronunciation. But speaking a language is much much more than that.

Ok, I looked again at the chart closely. The first column says “Native”, so they tested the infants on their first language and NOT a 2nd language. In other words, this column is irrelevant when compared to the other columns.

I wonder how the test was conducted. Based on the research she mentioned in her talk, they only studied phonetics. But how about other aspects of language learning like vocabulary?

A 7 year-old might be better learning the accent, but an adult should be better picking up vocabulary.

Most of Patricia Kuhl’s research is available to read for free here - Patricia K. Kuhl – Publications | I-LABS

Her TED talk seems to be most related to this paper:

Kuhl, P. K., Tsao. F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 9096-9101.

The things I found most interesting about the talk were the chart at about 1.25 showing the degredation of language acquisition and her findings of phoneme recognition/acquisition showing a strong social factor in infants.

It’s pretty obvious why this happens. Nine month old infants just don’t find DVD’s as interesting as real people and consequently don’t pay much attention. Kuhl’s paper is very explicit on the point that thier attention is the determining factor here.

@DavidMansaray Thanks for posting this interesting presentation. Very stimulating and I probably wouldn’t have found it on my own.

@steve I agree with you 100%, if people couldn’t acquire language past the age of 17 then none of us would be here on this forum. I think that a great deal of miscommunication occurs between committed serial language learners and people focussed on linguistic brain studies. Researchers are often so focussed on the tiniest minutiae of language acquisition that it is difficult to generalise the implications of their work into the real world. Consquently a lot of neurolinguistic research can seem ridiculous.

Infants are 100% dependant on their interactions with the adults around them for every need. It’s really not surprising that they are so open to the new sounds they experience in their interactions because if they aren’t, then they’re going to be in a kind of trouble that as adults we’re really unlikely to ever experience.

@commasplice Now that’s the kind of language course I might actually sign up for. I’m sure it would produce far more fluent students than any existing academic course.

@edwin Her studies aren’t really testing infants learning a second language. The experiments she’s mostly referring to are focussed on the neural activation of the recognition of specific phonemes. The interesting thing she’s picked up is that after a few exposures to these from live interactions with native speakers the infants may have developed the permanent ability to identify those sounds. So yes, infants get native phoneme recognition from people speaking and interacting with them when they’re very young. How long that effect lasts is impossible to say yet. They are going to do follow up studies and in the years to come may uncover interesting things about the early development of language and its implications for later language acquisition.

I know that this really seems like, well duh…, but Kuhl and her colleagues really are doing pioneering work in developing new ways of actually measuring what’s happening in the brain when we learn the components of language and what happens when we hear it. I don’t know how much any of this is relevant to adult language learners but I personally find it exciting and fascinating.