How do babies learn new languages? Astonishing new findings

In this TED video, Patricia Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know. Clever lab experiments (and brain scans) show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world.

Why do babies pick up language easily? There is widespread acceptance amongst the language learning community

that children pick up languages easily. How they do this is not as well understood.

According to Kuhl, cheap car insurance quotes babies are listening intently to us, they are “taking statistics” depending on how adults talk. In this video, she gives some examples of Japanese and American babies learning their native language.

In English, babies use a lot of RA and LA. But the Japanese do not, so the study shows that though both Japanese and American babies respond early on to the same RA and LA sounds, but somehow as the babies grow older the American babies respond better to RA and LA, but the Japanese babies deteriorate ie. what sounds babies are exposed to matter.

Bilingual babies have to keep two sets of “statistics”. Do they get confused?

Kuhl tested sets of American vs Taiwanese babies at 6-8 months vs 10-12 months

The experiment exposed American babies to Mandarin sounds at these time intervals. American babies exposed to a Mandarin speaker over 12 sessions have equivalent respoonses to those living in Taiwan. This is an amazing finding.

Kuhl then tried to replicate this with audio and TV/video.  If the baby is exposed to audio alone or TV/video alone, babies do not absorb the “statistics”. Only human interaction matters. This has enormous implications for parents

who spend thousands of dollars buying video/audio packs for babies in French, Spanish, Mandarin etc.

Kuhl closed her lecture with some food for thought.

In investigating the child’s brain, we will discover deep truths about what it means to be human. And in the process we may be able to help keep our own minds open to learning for our entire lives.

Watch the video. Highly recommended for everyone, not just parents with kids.

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I was, like….what? – The new new English

For whatever reason, I was recently on a bus in Chile. Having a modest command of Spanish, I can usually manage a basic exchange in the language, but when the conductor addressed me, I heard bla, bla, bla and nothing more. Even when he repeated what he’d said, I didn’t catch a single word.

Annoying! Why can’t people speak their own language properly?

Sitting behind me were three young Aussie guys. I overheard their conversation, which went rather as follows:

“ Man, I was, like… what?” “I was, like… far out!” “And she was, like… what the…” “I was, like… crazy.”

And so it went on. I soon realised that, although I could identify all the words, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. All I caught were various parts of the verb “to be”, a

handful of “likes”, a grinding pause after every “like”, and then finally some kind of interjection.

After a while, the conversation reached its glorious, inevitable climax:

“I was, like… fuck!”

Whereupon everyone roared with laughter. Whether this meant that the trio had actually extracted some meaning from this curious exchange, or whether they were just accommodating one another, I’m not entirely sure.

Having overheard the sentence, “I was, like… fuck!” and observed the same reaction a number of times now, I’ve concluded that it inevitably produces a kind of Pavlovian chuckle. It doesn’t require interpretation. Maybe it just cheers people up – if you’re feeling down, you could perhaps recite it to yourself to see if it helps.

That said, I tried to envisage a context in which “I was, like… fuck!” had some meaning. I believe I understand the standard meaning of all four words in this utterance, but how could they come together to convey some aspect of reality? A number of curious images drifted in and out of my consciousness, but somehow failed to coalesce into anything very concrete. Still less could I attach them to the context in which the words were used – but then, as I hadn’t been able to identify a context anyway, it wasn’t very likely that I would.

But here’s another idea: maybe there’s some mystery code enabling sophisticated meaning to be extracted from a language which has apparently been reduced to about four words. Are there perhaps layers of meaning conveyed by the intonation, and has that replaced vocabulary as the primary vehicle for the conveyance of meaning? Instead of using a hundred different words, just produce “fuck” with a hundred different intonations, and meaning will be conveyed, at least to the cognoscenti, just as well.

I’m thinking now that we should rewrite the textbooks we produce for learners of English. Out goes: much of the old grammar. In comes: “to be + like + pause + interjection”. We could then add, “This construction is now used to convey meanings ranging from ‘to say’, through ‘to feel’, to ‘the reaction was’, to essentially anything at all. It has replaced 99% of the previously existing language.”

But seriously, does it matter if the English language is reduced to about four words? I have to say I’m not exactly offended by the word “fuck”: how can anyone be seriously offended by hearing a word they’ve heard thousands of times already? I do have an issue when it’s used in every sentence regardless of meaning. And I have an even bigger issue with a jarring “like” puncturing every sentence and creating a horrible staccato effect.

It seems to be mainly younger people who speak in this way. Sometimes their speech is so far removed from standard English that it really amounts to a distinct dialect – one determined not by region, class or even nationality, but by generation. Actually, if they want to speak in this way, and manage to communicate with one another, well, so be it. But I really hope they recognise that this is not standard English, and that there are contexts in which they need to switch codes and use that standard.

One such context is in communicating with non-native speakers of English. No learner of English is actually taught the construction “to be + like + pause + interjection”, and to be suddenly confronted by it must be a little dispiriting. When you learn a foreign language, you rather hope the native speakers you encounter will speak the form you’ve learnt. Dialects may well create a valuable sense of identity, but they can also exclude, and when you’re learning another language, they can drive you mad – it’s hard enough learning the standard, let alone umpteen variants.

Most English speakers make little effort to learn foreign languages; the very least we can do is to use a standard form of the language when speaking to those who do. The I-was-like-fuck! dialect may have its place, but it’s not here.

One of the travellers now approached another conductor. Speaking Spanish was obviously out of the question, so would he perhaps switch codes and try to communicate in standard English?

“Yeah, we were, like… wondering if we could, like…”

And I was, like… wondering whether English speakers deserved to

be understood at all.

Euroasia Principal Peter Chapple recently returned from a holiday in Latin America. He is currently researching the topic of optimal delivery of Spanish lessons for English speakers as part of the Euroasia curriculum development programme.

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How many Eskimo words are there for snow?

OK this settles it.  In the Yup'ik Eskimo Dictionary published by the Native Language Centre at the University of Alaska, and found in schools throughout Alaska's Yukon Delta, there are 37 ways of referring to snow.

When snow falls from the sky, an Eskimo can say “it's snowing” in four different ways: aniu, cellallir, ganir or qanunge.

Once the snow is on the

ground, things can get more complicated. Light snow is kannevvluk, soft and deep snow is muruaneq and drifting snow is called natquik.

Crusted snow, corniced snow and fresh snow all have their own word too.

Check out dating advice older men

=”http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7668163.stm” target=”_blank”>this video, where Grant Kashatok, an Eskimo principal in Alaska, explains one reason there are so many words for snow. “When we say a word, instead of saying 'That is not safe snow!' we say one word and people know if it's safe or not.”

The word to look out for is “Mingqutnguaq!”. It means “rotten ice”. So the idea is if you're tramping through Alaska and you hear someone yell this word, be very still as you could be about to fall through the ice.

I think I'll blog about the number of Italian words for pasta next week. I usually get confused when I look at the restaurant menu…

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