The Linguistic Genius of Babies: Patricia Kuhl (Full Transcript)

Patricia Kuhl – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I want you to take a look at this baby. What you’re drawn to are her eyes and the skin you love to touch.

But today I’m going to talk to you about something you can’t see. What’s going on up in that little brain of hers. The modern tools of neuroscience are demonstrating to us that what’s going on up there is nothing short of rocket science.

And what we’re learning is going to shed some light on what the romantic writers and poets described as the “celestial openness” of the child’s mind.

What we see here is a mother in India, and she’s speaking Koro, which is a newly discovered language. And she’s talking to her baby. What this mother — and the 800 people who speak Koro in the world — understands is that, to preserve this language, they need to speak it to the babies. And therein lies a critical puzzle.

WHY IS IT THAT YOU CAN’T PRESERVE A LANGUAGE BY SPEAKING TO YOU AND I, TO THE ADULTS?

Well, it’s got to do with your brain. What we see here is that language has a critical period for learning. The way to read this slide is to look at your age on the horizontal axis. And you’ll see on the vertical your skill at acquiring a second language.

The babies and children are geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline. After puberty, we fall off the map. No scientists dispute this curve, but laboratories all over the world are trying to figure out why it works this way.

Work in my lab is focused on the first critical period in development, and that is the period in which babies try to master which sounds are used in their language. We think, by studying how the sounds are learned, we’ll have a model for the rest of language, and perhaps for critical periods that may exist in childhood for social, emotional and cognitive development.

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So we’ve been studying the babies using a technique that we’re using all over the world and the sounds of all languages. The baby sits on a parent’s lap, and we train them to turn their heads when a sound changes — like from “ah” to “ee.” If they do so at the appropriate time, the black box lights up and a panda bear pounds a drum. A six-monther adores the task.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

Well, babies all over the world are what I like to describe as “citizens of the world.” They can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using, and that’s remarkable because you and I can’t do that.

We’re culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages.

So the question arises: When do those citizens of the world turn into the language-bound listeners that we are? And the answer: before their first birthdays.

What you see here is performance on that head-turn task for babies tested in Tokyo and the United States, here in Seattle, as they listened to “ra” and “la” — sounds important to English, but not to Japanese.

So at six to eight months, the babies are totally equivalent. Two months later, something incredible occurs. The babies in the United States are getting a lot better, babies in Japan are getting a lot worse, but both of those groups of babies are preparing for exactly the language that they are going to learn.

So the question is: What’s happening during this critical two-month period? This is the critical period for sound development, but what’s going on up there?

So there are two things going on. The first is that the babies are listening intently to us, and they’re taking statistics as they listen to us talk — they’re taking statistics.

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So listen to two mothers speaking motherese — the universal language we use when we talk to kids — first in English and then in Japanese.

(Video) Ah, I love your big blue eyes — so pretty and nice.

During the production of speech, when babies listen, what they’re doing is taking statistics on the language that they hear. And those distributions grow. And what we’ve learned is that babies are sensitive to the statistics, and the statistics of Japanese and English are very, very different.

English has a lot of Rs and Ls. The distribution shows. And the distribution of Japanese is totally different, where we see a group of intermediate sounds, which is known as the Japanese “R.”

So babies absorb the statistics of the language and it changes their brains; it changes them from the citizens of the world to the culture-bound listeners that we are.

But we as adults are no longer absorbing those statistics. We are governed by the representations in memory that were formed early in development.

So what we’re seeing here is changing our models of what the critical period is about. We’re arguing from a mathematical standpoint that the learning of language material may slow down when our distributions stabilize. It’s raising lots of questions about bilingual people.

Bilinguals must keep two sets of statistics in mind at once and flip between them, one after the other, depending on who they’re speaking to.

So we asked ourselves: can the babies take statistics on a brand new language? And we tested this by exposing American babies who’d never heard a second language to Mandarin for the first time during the critical period.

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