The Linguistic Genius of Babies

Babies, especially infants, have an unmatched, genius-level ability to learn; from developing motor skills to cognitive and communicative functions, babies are resemblant of a cerebral sponge. Recently, more and more scientific attention has been directed at understanding why and how babies are able to absorb information the way they do. Below is a TedTalk video from Dr. Patricia Kuhl titled “The Linguistic Genius of Babies”, explaining the current research she is undertaking on the subject and what the fruits of the research will bring; as well, a summary of the key points in Dr. Kuhl’s video are presented further down by David Kinnane from Banter Speech & Language.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2XBIkHW954 

David Kinnane’s notes:

  • “To preserve a language, you need to speak it to babies, not adults. (This comment reminded us of Dr Pinker’s statement that linguists know a language is dead when it is spoken only by adults.)
  • A critical period exists for humans to acquire a new language efficiently – after 7 years of age, our ability to do so declines systematically.
  • Babies younger than 12 months old are “citizens of the world”: they can discriminate all the sounds in every language. Adults can’t do that. We’re “language-bound” to our mother tongue (or mother tongues for bilingual children).
  • As babies listen to their parents, they are (unconsciously) taking statistics on the speech sounds used by their parents. At around 1 year of age, babies gradually lose their ability to discriminate all speech sounds in all languages and zero in on the speech sounds used in their home language(s).
  • By exposing US-born babies to Mandarin spoken by a Mandarin-speaking therapist for short periods during the first year of birth, babies of English-speaking parents maintained their ability to discriminate speech sounds native to Mandarin speakers.
  • Interestingly, results were not as favourable when the children were exposed to an audio recording in Mandarin or by watching TV.  It seems the presence of a real human being is required – food for thought in these days of iPads and Nickelodeon.”

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