How babies learn language

Fascinating research on how words are “born”. Deb Roy studies how his own son acquires language and use new words. In an effort to understand how children learn words, he wired his home with bird’s-eye view cameras and microphones for three years to collect data on his son. The home videos begin with his son’s arrival home from the hospital and end at the age of 3 years, offering Roy and his team unprecedented access to real-life moments in the language learning process.

As my students and I immersed ourselves in over 200,000 hours of home audio and video recordings, we began thinking of language acquisition as a series of “word births.” With a near-complete record of life at home over the first two years of my son’s life, we were able to pinpoint each time he learned to say a new word. We could then trace back in time to find each occasion where he heard that word from caregivers — the “gestation” period leading to the word’s birth.

It’s amazing to see 2 year olds use new words,  somehow managing to make sense of it all.

To visualize the gestation period of words, another of my students, Philip DeCamp developed “wordscapes,” a collage of human movement traces extracted from all the video moments when my son heard a particular word. I showed examples of wordscapes in my TED talk, but we had yet to analyze their relationship to word births. Recently, my student Matt Miller found that wordscapes are surprisingly predictive of the timing of word births. Words with unique wordscapes tend to be learned earlier and more easily, at least for my son. This finding suggests ways that we can help children learn language more effectively by manipulating the non-linguistic contexts in which they experience language.

The results of this research could transform the way language is taught to adults. Teaching a foreign language effectively in as short a period as possible is the holy grail for language educators.  Euroasia will certainly be keeping an eye on developments in this

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.

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