Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Linguistic Genius of Babies- TED Talks

Nerd warning:  I emphasized in linguistics at my last college.  It fascinates me.  It may not fascinate you.

The TED Talks are something that any well-informed citizen of the world should take advantage of.  These talks cover a variety of topics, from lectures on the correct way to tie your shoes (I can bear testimony of the truthfulness of that presentation) to performances of world-champion whistlers.

This morning, my roommate and I were listening to one as we got ready for the day.  Given by Patricia Kuhl, The Linguistic Genius of Babies discusses the factors and influences that allow children to rapidly learn languages, even complex ones like Finnish and Mandarin, at extremely young ages, and how those factors fall into sharp decline after age 7, and by age 17, those skills are nearly nonexistent (I know a few missionaries who might argue that point a little, but the science is there and MTCers are outliers).

Dr. Kuhl also brings up a most compelling point.  Prior to their first birthdays, children are "citizens of the world," as she says, but soon thereafter, they become "language-bound listeners" like you and me.  The distinction is this: young babies respond equally to all different sounds and tones, including those of foreign languages, while older children and adults cease to categorize foreign language around them.  Dr. Kuhl supports this theory with some research wherein children are rewarded for reacting to sounds, some of which come from the native language and some of which come from the foreign language.  Between the ages of 6 and 8 months, children from many different cultures responded at the same rate to both native and foreign languages.  However, when the same test was repeated two months later, the frequency of the children's reactions to foreign languages dropped precipitously.

Dr. Kuhl quantifies this phenomenon further by explaining that babies initially spend their waking hours categorizing sounds and tones of everything they hear, but after that breaking point, they begin reacting and thinking less of foreign sounds.  One can infer a point here: babies learn to react less to foreign sounds because those reactions don't yield results.  An American baby, living in Japan with American parents, will pay less heed to the Japanese sounds around her than she will to the American sounds that yield food, play, and love from her parents.  One could call it nationalism in its simplest and most innocent form.

A few other interesting points: babies reacted far more strongly when an actual person was doing the speaking.  When babies were tested using audio tracks and even videos of people talking, their brains were much more passive.  In this way, we can see how social and interpersonal language is for a child.  And children who come from two-language households develop two separate categorization systems and can switch between the two seamlessly and effortlessly.  I remember Toby doing that once when he got angry with another driver; his speech instantly switched from his normal flawless English to his unusual, yet flawless Spanish without missing a beat.  Pretty amazing stuff.

The "so-what" of Dr. Kuhl's discussion was that through more extensive research of these phenomena, we might be able to begin to unlock some of the secrets of childrens' native open-mindedness and apply them to adults or people with learning or mental disabilities.  For me, a student struggling through a difficult Spanish class, the mind scintillates at the possibility of becoming a native learner again...

Honestly, what struck me most about watching Dr. Kuhl's presentation was the miracle that is the human brain.  Tiny children, fresh from the womb, begin categorizing and hardwiring their brains for life and they do so with remarkable accuracy.  And, as is the case with native speakers of two or more languages, their learning "bandwidth" is unlimited.  In that example, both languages develop somewhat independent of each other, yet at the same pace and with the same success as a learner of one language.  That organ truly is a remarkable thing, and yet, for seemingly little reason at all, it ceases to acquire knowledge at the original, blistering rate after the first birthday.  That I could acquire that mental pace again!

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a "passion for learning," but even so, talks like these give me nerdy, nerdy goosebumps when I think about the power of the brain and the capabilities of modern science to unlock its secrets.

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