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Science

How Infants Crack the Speech Code 506

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the some-of-us-never-quite-crack-it dept.
scupper writes "Infants learn language with remarkable speed, but how they do it remains a mystery. New data shows that infants use computational strategies to detect patterns in language, according to UW's Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl in the Nature article "Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code" [PMID: 15496861] Interesting excerpt from the article: 'There is evidence that infants analyse the statistical distributions of sounds that they hear in ambient language, and use this information to form phonemic categories. They also learn phonotactic rules -- language-specific rules that govern the sequences of phonemes that can be used to compose words.'"
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How Infants Crack the Speech Code

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  • by fembots (753724) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:50PM (#10691640) Homepage
    I think babies learn everything better than adults. I will stick to my 'brain is still empty' theory :) As we grow, we have more spyware/adware installed, and things tend to go more slowly.

    With these new findings, maybe a super computer can be built with these analytical and statistical skills, then this computer can learn to speak like HAL.

    nature.com is pretty slow now, given that it's using cgi-taf on a Dynapage.taf, obviously didn't read the Do-Not-Slashdot ACT 1996 [interneh.com], so here's a coral link [nyud.net].
    • It is said that children who grow up in families with two native languages are better at learning new languages. In the context of this article, I wonder how that works out -- in the sense that I wonder how it makes it easy for these children to learn new languages.

      Does the brain develop separate neural nets for each language? Is there a composite neural net? Does it matter how similar sounding or similar in grammar these two languages are? I grew up learning Malayalam (a south indian language from the Dravidian family) and English at the same time. When I was 6, I started learning Hindi. I can speak fluent Malayalam and English and I am decently fluent in Hindi. In highschool, I started learning French and found it easy. Now, I do a lot of latin dancing and I hang around a lot of hispanic people and I've been picking up Spanish. I don't find it all that difficult to learn a language if I put my mind to it.

      English and Malayalam are two radically different languages -- in sound and in grammar. I wonder how the neural nets in my brain developed to cope with this, and whether that is what makes it easy for me to pick up new languages.
      • by hazem (472289) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:19PM (#10692252) Journal
        I can't cite any studies, but my friend, who is a special-ed teacher, says that research indicates that children growing up dual-language house-holds learn both languages very well. But they also tend to develop slower in either language. So, in your case, you learned Malayalam and English to full fluency. But compared to other children only learning English or Malayalam, they learned their one langauge faster. So strangely, you seem, by some measures, developmentally impaired.

        Of course, once you finally catch up, you now have a much easier ability to learn new languages.

        This all pretty makes sense to me. You're learning two languages, not one, so of course it takes longer. What I wonder, though, is what might you be be giving up to have gained the ability to quickly master languages?
      • Neurosmith Babbler (Score:5, Insightful)

        by WindBourne (631190) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:58PM (#10692882) Journal

        One of the problems in USA is that we tend to push english only. One of the toys that I have found to help defeat the language barriers is Neurosmith's Babbler. Basically, it plays phenomes from several other languages that we lack in English. These are from Spanish, French, and Japanese. It makes a lot of sense.

        As to the multiple languages, just ask any coder who knows multiple languages in multiple paradigms. Once you get several languages down esp. with differing paradigms, then it is trivial to pick up more languages. Doing natural languages is no different.

      • by MidnightBrewer (97195) on Monday November 01, 2004 @06:52PM (#10693646)
        I started studying German at the age of 16 through immersion, and after going back for another year, getting a college degree and continuing to speak it for 12+ years, I am a native speaker in the language (right down to dialect.) I have now been living in Japan for the last two years, and I have noticed several interesting things while I've been learning Japanese:

        1. My brain doesn't distinguish between German and Japanese, it merely rates them as "not English." For example, watching a Japanese program teaching German, I find that when they jump from German to Japanese, it takes a second for my brain to register, "Oh, wait, comprehension just dropped from 100% to 30%."

        When you're speaking a language, the best technique involves ignoring that it's a foreign language at all (yeah, it's a Zen thing.) Think of it like a computer: running natively always works better than emulation. Therefore, there's no flag that pops up saying, "They are now speaking German," etc. You either can understand it or you can't.

        2. I find that Japanese is easy to master from a phonetic and mannerism standpoint, because I already overcame the mental hurdles once with German. It's easier to divorce myself from my original language and cultural frame of reference in order to allow me to accept the differences of Japanese language and culture at face value, rather than digging my heels in and saying, "This is strange, this is weird, this is hard."

        3. There definitely is a phonotactic structure to every language that one learns. (I recently figured this out; good to know there's a name for it.) Basically, I can see a word and say, "That can't be a Japanese word," or "That can't be German," just like I can do in my own native English. This particular knack doesn't even require that high a level of mastery of grammar or vocabulary; it seems to work on a sub-conscious level as the brain accumulates experience and cross-references it against everything else you've learned so far.

        Basically, take a page out of the baby's book. I think it's definitely the blank canvas and the lack of conditioned structure that allows them to adapt so flexibly to learning language. Even as adults, if we can allow ourselves to relax and accept a foreign language without mentally pausing every other word to register that it's foreign, mastering a new one isn't as bad as you think.
        • Wow, I'm almost the same way. I started learning German at 14 (not by immersion) Now, after 10 years, I went to Germany, and had the ability to speak and understand people well enough, but it took me a whole day to digest and accept spoken German as a language.

          4 years after begining to learn German, I started learning Japanese. It was very easy to grasp the grammar. While Japanese is usually taught by "patterns" to Americans, I was able to identify the more complex structures underlying everything rath
      • by Lord Kano (13027) on Monday November 01, 2004 @07:07PM (#10693837) Homepage Journal
        English and Malayalam are two radically different languages -- in sound and in grammar.

        How do you say "Palindrome" in Malayalam?

        LK
    • by pavon (30274) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:14PM (#10692146)
      Studies show that starting kids late on lanuguage greatly hampers their ability to learn their lanugage. But they also show that starting kids early or late on arithmatic does not have any meaningfull impact in the long run. So somethings are more affected by age than others.

      The conclusion: we should be focusing education during the younger years on areas where youth is an advantage. Children should be brought up multilingual rather than spending years learning it poorly in high school and college. We should care more about art, music and exploration in younger years, even if it means that math and others are pushed back a few years.
      • by nharmon (97591) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:24PM (#10692349) Homepage
        I'd mod you up if I had points, but alas, I will expand on what you said.

        I believe that a greater focus on language skills earlier in the educational process will yields better results later on because it will provide a better foundation for learning. In other words, science would be much easier to learn with a greater demand of the language.

        As far as being multilingual, who decides what the student's second language should be?
    • by turnstyle (588788) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:17PM (#10692218) Homepage
      I just became a pop for the first time 2 months ago, so I've been paying attention to this sort of stuff.

      One interesting thing is that she certainly communicates her needs. For her, crying that is accompanied by head-nods and one foot kicking means "I'm hungry" (and, yes, there's quite a lot of crying with head-nods and foot kicks ;).

      What's interesting is that she had that behavior almost as soon as she was born -- and I don't think every kid does the same thing.

      Point is that it seems like she was born with a bit of language (mixed verbal + sign) but that it's not the same languge other kids are born with -- I think each has his/her own.

      Verbally, she'll now stick out her tongue when I do, but she doesn't seem to even speak "babytalk" yet -- mostly cries and cooes...

      It's fun stuff!

      • I enjoyed watching my nephew progress with language as well. An English teacher in high school made a great point one that is stupidly simple but easy to misunderstand. She said wait until you here the child that is just learning to speak and say something like "runned" instead of ran. That means they are starting to get the concept of tense and working or grammar but haven't mastered the small points. The reason "runned"shows they are experimenting is because no one ever says "runned", they came put differ
        • I think it's simpler than that, since it only affects irregular verbs. Most verbs form the past tense simply by adding -ed. Walk, walked; talk, talked, etc. So in a kid's mind, the logical progression (already established by the majority of the verbs they hear) is run, runned; drink, drinked, etc. To little kids, "ran" and "drank" probably sound like bad grammar!

    • by barawn (25691) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:33PM (#10692511) Homepage
      I think babies learn everything better than adults. I will stick to my 'brain is still empty' theory :) As we grow, we have more spyware/adware installed, and things tend to go more slowly.

      Keep in mind your brain is still growing when you are a child. Once you hit the late teens, your brain's done growing, and it has to live with just rewiring its existing neurons to adapt to things quickly.

      Children, honestly, are far smarter than adults are - it's too bad that our most brilliant years are wasted due to having extremely limited information. It's also important for parents to realize that their kids are far more capable than they think they are - lack of knowledge should never be construed as lack of intelligence. Parents often tell children "you wouldn't understand" when, in truth, the children probably would understand, possibly even better than the parents.

      With these new findings, maybe a super computer can be built with these analytical and statistical skills, then this computer can learn to speak like HAL.

      I'm really interested in the idea that children classify things via phoneme classification and statistical analysis. This sounds remarkably like a "universal translator" from Star Trek. I think a lot of work should be done in this area - it could be exceptionally useful in understanding the way communication works, and also the ability of computers to understand human speech.
  • grammar (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AssProphet (757870) * on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:51PM (#10691652) Homepage Journal
    as I understand it, Infants actually learn grammar before they learn words.
    • Re:grammar (Score:5, Informative)

      by vivin (671928) <vivin.paliath@gm ... ERGom minus poet> on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691802) Homepage Journal
      Yes, in a manner of speaking. They first learn what the language is supposed to sound like. The abstract tells us how the infants form words and sentences, but it doesn't tell us how they map the sounds to their meanings/contexts. Maybe the main article goes into more detail. I think the word/sound->meaning/context mapping would be interesting to study.

      There are computer programs that can recognize words (voice recognition), but how many programs can (with a large rate of success) recognize the words and map them to their meanings, or context? The point about the neural net is also interesting. It would seem that the brain is programmed to understand a certain language better. Does that mean that people who have learnt a certain language, can learn a similar language easily? The article seems to suggest that if the neural net is built in a certain way, it might be easy to learn similar sounding languages, but a language with a very similar grammar, but different sounds might be difficult? Would be interesting to pursue and find out...
    • Re:grammar (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:00PM (#10691836)
      There are various theories. In the generative tradition, humans are born with a vast amount of knowledge about language. In that sense they already know "grammar" before they learn individual words. On the other hand, to work out the settings for the various innate parameters they have to be able to segment into words, so many linguists would probably say that "grammar" acquisition runs alongside lexical acquisition. For more information, read anything by Chomsky.

      Other theoretical traditions would say that there is no innate grammar, but rather that learning a language consists of learning statistical patterns which are represented through neural activation patterns. For them, grammar will follow lexical acquisition. Other argue that the lexicon is effectively the grammar. For more information, read anything by Elman or Bates. Both the latter have articles online which can easily be found by googling, but I'm a lazyarse and can't be bothered to do it.
      • Chomsky (Score:5, Informative)

        by base_chakra (230686) * on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:49PM (#10692746)
        For more information, read anything by Chomsky.

        I wouldn't say that since Noam Chomsky's huge body of work spans so many topics, but nonetheless he is arguably the leading theorist on the subject (not to mention stupifyingly brilliant).

        Some specific titles:
        * Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origins, and Use
        * Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures
        * The Architecture of Language (Chomsky et al.)
        * New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind

        Other theoretical traditions would say that there is no innate grammar, but rather that learning a language consists of learning statistical patterns which are represented through neural activation patterns

        Which partially describes Kuhl [washington.edu]'s work, which is the subject of the article. However, I would not go so far as to say that these theories must be mutually exclusive. I subscribe to Chomsky's notion of genetic predisposition toward certain innate language structures, and at the same time I see no contradiction between that theory and Kuhl's description of a possible mechanism for language-learning.
    • by why-is-it (318134) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:33PM (#10692506) Homepage Journal
      as I understand it, Infants actually learn grammar before they learn words.

      I recall hearing something to that effect in my cognitive psychology classes too. IIRC, children seem to almost inately understand certain grammatical concepts such as putting words in the past tense or forming the plural of a word.

      Chomsky has/had a theory about children being hard-wired with the basic rules of a universal grammar, and I think this research was examining that theory...

      There was a video of a researcher showing young child a stuffed toy called a "wug". The child was shown another wug and was asked how many there were now, and the child indicated that there were two wugs, without being told what the plural for wug was.

      Later on in the video, the researcher told the child that the the wug likes to "gling" every day. Today the wug glings. When asked what the wug did yesterday, the child replied that the wug glinged, which is a grammatically correct past test expression of the "word" gling.

      The study was conducted with a number of participants, and the results were statistically significant. Admittedly, the subjects were 4-year olds (and not infants), but it is unlikely that children of that age were given formal instructions on the rules of grammar.

      I wonder if further studies were able to prove or disprove the hypothesis that children seem hard-wired with certain grammatical rules?

    • Re:grammar (Score:3, Interesting)

      by bill_mcgonigle (4333) *
      as I understand it, Infants actually learn grammar before they learn words.

      To a certain extent, yeah. My daughter can only say a few words, but when she makes up words and tries to ask questions she understands the final rising pitch, the palms-up hand gestures, etc. The final rising pitch is common in Western languages but when I learned some Cantonese it was surprising to say "Is Daddy Here?" as "Daddy Is Daddy Isn't Here" where the pitches are part of vocabulary and the question imparts none.

      Still,
  • by vivin (671928) <vivin.paliath@gm ... ERGom minus poet> on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:51PM (#10691653) Homepage Journal
    It doesn't explain why they pick up swearwords much easier than normal words :)

    ga ga goo goo.
  • it went like this..

    "DA-DA, where's MA-MA?"
  • ...how "y'alls's" can be considered a usable word!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:53PM (#10691679)
    After all, George W Bush is 57, and he's still trying to learn English.
    • Damn, maybe it's the politics thread right below this one, but you beat me to the punch on making almost that exact same statement.

      /me toasts to the AC and his quick wit

    • Re:Not all infants (Score:5, Insightful)

      by iabervon (1971) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:31PM (#10692470) Homepage Journal
      Actually, Bush does very well at what infants are learning during this period. All of the junk he says sounds just like English. Had he failed to make the step that they describe, he would have a randomly-varying accent and accidentally say things that sound Hindi or French. It may not be easy to tell what he's trying to say, but it's always clearly English he's trying to say it in.

      The one exception I can think of is that the way he pronounces "Abu Gharib" may be a more accurate rendition of the actual Arabic than English-speaking non-phonologists can usually manage. It would indicate a failure to learn English phonology if he was unable to mangle Arabic like everyone else does. (Phonologists, of course, train themselves to say all sorts of things that are unavailable in their native language)

      In fact, Bush's main speech issues are that when he pauses, he tends to pause for a long time, and he tends to paraphrase himself to fill up time. It's not hard to understand what he's trying to say because he doesn't speak English well, but rather because he doesn't know what he's trying to say.
    • After all, George W Bush is 57, and he's still trying to learn English.

      Pretty much kiboshes the "brain still empty" [slashdot.org] theory, too.
  • The Matrix (Score:5, Funny)

    by RomSteady (533144) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:53PM (#10691680) Homepage Journal
    So in other words, if we create a Beowulf cluster of infants, and only allow them to hear sounds from "The Matrix" trilogy, the only words they would be able to say would be, "Keanu Reeves can't act?"

    Sounds like a plan to me. [grin]
  • by mccalli (323026) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:54PM (#10691699) Homepage
    There is evidence that infants analyse the statistical distributions of sounds that they hear in ambient language

    Or to simplify the vocabulary a little, "copy what they hear the most of".

    Cheers,
    Ian

  • Did they find a non-functional baby and dump the ROMs?

  • But can they run Linux?
  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:55PM (#10691730) Homepage Journal
    regardless of their native tongue. I'm curious as to why then it becomes much harder for adults who are native speakers of one class of language(say Romantic) to learn languages that are not related to their native tongue(for example Chinese speakers who learn English and vica-versa). The summary doesn't state if perhaps we are teaching language the wrong way. I know that our ability to learn languages decreases as we grow older, but I seriously think there is something lacking in the way languages are presented in high school/college.
    The question becomes now, can we take this data and apply it to teaching languages?
    • by RealAlaskan (576404) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:03PM (#10691907) Homepage Journal
      I'm curious as to why then it becomes much harder for adults who are native speakers of one class of language(say Romantic) to learn languages that are not related to their native tongue ...

      Well, the article summary sez:

      Young infants are sensitive to subtle differences between all phonetic units, whereas older children lose their sensitivity to distinctions that are not used in their native language.
      Clear enough?

      Expose your children to as many languages as you can, in their infancy and beyond. The more languages they hear sounds from, the better.

      This effect might explain why my kids have all been a little slow in talking: they are hearing two languages, with very different sets of phonemes at home, and have to decode and make sense of both.

      • Hmm, makes me wonder where people with speech dificulties fit in. (I'm thinking more about pronounciation problems, as that's what I had to deal with).
        BACKGROUND
        I spent from 3-13 years old being taught(in the public schools, yes I have ridden the short bus home a few times(when I was like 4)) how to speak and pronounce certain sounds(English: the R sound(think Elmer Fudd's pronounciation, I sounded like that), SH, CH, and one or two more I think). (Actually it wasn't just that, but also controlling the pit
    • by Belial6 (794905) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:05PM (#10691941)
      Don't believe it. It takes most humans ~2 years to learn to speak their native tounge enough to call them fluent, and then they still have a limited vocabulary. If you take an adult and put them in an environment that has no one who speaks their native language, and many people who will have infinite patience in teaching their language to you, you will be able to speak it in less than 2 years. The myth that children learn language faster is created because standards are lower, and adults have a lot more to distract them, so the spend less time over an equivelent period, actually trying to learn the language.
      • Bart:

        Here, I've listened to nothing but French for the past deux mois, et je ne sais pas un mot!

        (two months, and I don't know a word!)

        Mais, je parle Francais maintenant! Incroyable!
        (My, I speak French now! Incredible!)

        Hey, Monsieur, aidez-moi! Ces deux types me font travailler jour et nuit. Ils ne me donnent pas `a manger, ils me font dormir par terre, ils mettent de l'antifreeze dans le vin, et ils ont donn'e mon chapeau rouge `a l'ane.
        (Hey sir, help me! These two guys make me work day and nig

      • by iabervon (1971)
        This research shows that, if you learn a language as an adult, your pronunciation will suck. Children are primed to learn to sound like a native speaker, whereas adults will learn to speak with an accent and be unable to hear distinctions not present in languages they learned as infants. If you were to spend 2 years speaking Hindi, you'd be able to speak Hindi fluently, but you'd still mess up the aspirated consonants. If you learn Greek as an adult, you'll never get the gammas in quite the right place, and
      • by foqn1bo (519064) on Monday November 01, 2004 @08:26PM (#10694685)
        IAAGSIL(I Am A Grad Student In Linguistics)


        Nobody is saying that adults can't ever reach fluency. The claim is that as you get older your ability to learn languages decreases rapidly. If both you and a five year old are immersed in a foreign language environment, she will (barring a huge exception) inevitably end up speaking the language better than you. You need to distinguish between fluency and *native* fluency. Adults who are able to achieve fluency that is comparable to that of a native speaker are very rare, and while the limits vary from person to person there will almost always be a wall past which one cannot progress.


        For example, children start having trouble being able to hear the difference between sounds that are non-constrastive in their native languages as early as 18 months. If you poke around in the literature on developmental psychology, you'll probably come across stories about "Jeanie", a strange case of a child who was basically locked in a dark room for her entire childhood. Despite sincere attempts, there was no success in teaching her anything that resembled a human language.

        There was also a recent study done on Nicaraguan Sign Language(a form of sign language that's being invented as we speak by deaf children who had no previous access to sign language). It's an interesting case, because the language originates from a school in Managua so every year a fresh group of first year kids are newly exposed to it by their older peers. Over the years NSL has evolved substantially from a more iconic gesture-like system to one that is begining to demonstrate hallmarks of universal linguistic properties, such as the building of hierarchical phrase structures and the serialization of complex ideas into separate words. This has happened rapidly, so the younger kids sign quite differently than the older ones. The older kids, and especially the young adults who were among the first NSL speaking classes, have retained the more primitive gestural components of the language and are basically stuck in that pattern, more or less unable to augment their signing skills with the newer features. The conclusion reached by the study is that not only do young children have a better time learning language, but they also seem to have a brain that's specially adapted to the creation of language from scratch, an adaptation which does not appear to be similarly shared in mature adults. Cool stuff.

  • by YetAnotherName (168064) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:56PM (#10691736) Homepage
    OK, my daughter, being the daughter of a couple of geeks, was exposed early on to lots of anime. Now, we speak English in the house, and she certainly picked up on that. But when she babbled, it would have a Japanese kind of sound to it.

    She's four years old now and is totally in love with Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon [eternalsailormoon.org], a live action show. Now, her reading isn't up to snuff to actually keep up with the captions, but she loves the pretty girls going shopping, singing, and fighting evil.

    And now she takes that same cadence and rhythm from the long exposure to spoken and sung Japanese and will faithfully reproduce the words of songs, or will chatter in a kind of pseudo-Japanese when playing by herself. Yet her English is accentless. Clearly, there's some kind of organizational process going on in that cute little head.

    Yeah, we're probably setting her up to get ostrasized in school, but then again, if she'd just pick up on some of those fighting techniques, that might not happen either!
    • by La Camiseta (59684) <me@nathanclayton.com> on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691824) Homepage Journal
      And now she takes that same cadence and rhythm from the long exposure to spoken and sung Japanese and will faithfully reproduce the words of songs, or will chatter in a kind of pseudo-Japanese when playing by herself. Yet her English is accentless.

      This is actually a regular occurence with children who learn multiple languages before puberty. Typically, when you learn two or more languages before you reach puberty, you are able to speak both without a discernable accent.

      If you were to take your daughter to Japanese classes at this age, odds are that she would grow up able to speak Japanese without an English accent and vice-versa.
    • by Random_Goblin (781985) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:50PM (#10692775)
      Yeah, we're probably setting her up to get ostrasized in school, but then again, if she'd just pick up on some of those fighting techniques, that might not happen either!,

      Indeed! Once she can master shooting fireballs from her fists and jumping over buildings, i doubt she'll have much trouble in kindergarten!
  • by SeanTobin (138474) <byrdhuntr@hotCOWmail.com minus herbivore> on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:57PM (#10691759)
    This is a problem. Children, not only in the US but all across the world are using simple statistical analysis to break and decypher our national language. Nearly all of our nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional weapons are created and deployed using this language. We must act.

    But what can we as a nation do? We do not need any additional laws, we must only enforce the laws we have. Reverse engineering of this and other national secrets is strictly forbidden by the DMCA. Just because they are minors doesn't mean we can't sue them.
    • by xixax (44677) on Monday November 01, 2004 @07:35PM (#10694138)
      The Oxford English Dictionary Shared Source Programme, OEDSource.

      We have invested huge amounts of Intellectual Property developing language as a tool that has greatly enabled the progress of science, literature, engineering and more. It is absurd that there aren't stronger safeguards to protect this investment and ensure that the rightful owners of this work are properly compensated for the benefits spoken language has brought to society.

      As a Commonwealth nation with clear links to the United Kingdom, who originally developed English, we plan on vigorously enforcing our IP in this matter. We will give all US citizens a one-off opportunity to acquire English language licences, and thereby protect themselvs against future litigation. Conversational licences will cost $699 USD per node, whilst professional vocabulary and group discussion licences will start at $1399 per node.

      Developers of slang or jargon will need to purchase our development tools, as will developers engaged in porting of forgeign language words into our core infrastructure.

      We will be subpoena Webster's dictionary, and demonstrate that it contains millions of practically identical entries to the Oxford English Dictionary dictionary that we acquired when we bought our constitution from the United Kingdom.
  • Wow (Score:2, Funny)

    by IamNotAgeek (708764)
    After reading this I have been underestimting how smart babies are. Makes me wonder where all that intelligence goes after they grow up.
  • by JohnGrahamCumming (684871) * <slashdotNO@SPAMjgc.org> on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:57PM (#10691769) Homepage Journal
    What I need is "How to Crack the Infant Code?" for parents.

    Not sure what the hell "la la da ta bwa bwa" means.

    John/
  • Other kids just realize words give them more complete mastery over their parents.
  • by Skiron (735617) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691812) Homepage
    New data shows that infants use computational strategies to detect patterns in language...

    I used the 'hot wire' method, 'cos Cobol wasn't invented.
  • The Real Question (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jellomizer (103300) * on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691813)
    The next real question is how children who have learning dificulties in language learn language. I know I have always have the problem dealing with human language but I have always been very good at Compter Language (Ever sience I was in kindergarden) It make me wonder if we can figure out how people with learning dificulties learn language perhaps one method may be a lot easier to program? Although it may not be as good as the average person but it can be good enough to get most programs to understand language. Or perhaps we should see how a Genius in language learns perhaps his method is extramly optimized and may work in computers.
  • by Belial6 (794905) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691815)
    Watch a baby for it first year, and listen to it. You will find that babies just start making noise from thier mouths. When the sounds match what the other people say, they do it more, and when they get rewards for making certain sounds they really go with those. You know like when they say MAMA, and everyone in the room goes crazy. It's simple, and well known.
    • There's a few different opposing views about this early babbling. At such an early age a baby doesn't really have very much muscular control at all (if you've held a newborn, you know what I mean), and this is where the difference of opinion comes about.

      One school thinks that the very early babbling and screaches and crying that a baby does actually works out the vocal cords and allows them to experiment with new sounds, learning how to make new sounds and such. You'll also notice that early on, babies ten
  • by mr_z_beeblebrox (591077) on Monday November 01, 2004 @04:59PM (#10691819) Journal
    'There is evidence that infants analyse the statistical distributions of sounds that they hear in ambient language, and use this information to form phonemic categories.

    No wonder babies are so socially awkward, they're statisticians.
  • Yeah (Score:3, Funny)

    by DoctorHibbert (610548) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:00PM (#10691838)
    That's pretty much how I remember learning to talk.
  • by davidwr (791652) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:00PM (#10691846) Homepage Journal
    This is nice and all, but I'd be interested in comparing how babies and toddlers learn spoken languages vs. non-spoken ones like American Sign Lanugage or Nicaraguan Sign Language [japantimes.co.jp].
  • by chia_monkey (593501) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:01PM (#10691868) Journal
    This goes along with a few other theories of learning. It's often been suggested that it's much easier to learn a language at an early age than it is when you're older. I remember picking up French back in sixth grade and wanting to take more classes but we moved and they didn't offer a language until high school in my new town. By that point, I took Spanish and yet kept throwing in a French accent, French numbers, French alphabet, etc. Think of how quickly a baby picks up a language as opposed to an older person. It's a world of difference.

    My point is, I don't think it's for simply learning a language. A baby is like an incredibly sponge of information. Of course they are...they have nothing else to do but just soak in their surroundings and learn. And learn. And learn some more.

    In addition to being a bit more receptive to learning (and having nothing better to do), I think the younger mind also learns at a higher rate because they don't have to UNLEARN so much, or go around all the rules they've been taught for the past decade or two. Just soak it in, and you're done.
    • by math major (756859) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:18PM (#10692236)
      The critical period theory, that a child can only acquire a first language until the beginning of puberty, has been confirmed in many case studies. For obvious ethical reasons, these experiments cannot be set up intentionally, but in cases such as a severely abused child who was never exposed to language until about age 10, a woman who was deaf until a surgery when she was 30, the peopl e who have not yet reached puberty are still able to learn a language normally, and the rest are not. I strongly recommend reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker if you are interested. Pinker also discusses differences between learning a language and learning other things. For example, in most other things children learn, they see exactly what is done and then mimic it. However, learning language also gives a child the ability to create a sentence he has never heard before. Additionally, language is learned with no formal instruction, whereas other skills must be taught actively.
  • better learning (Score:3, Insightful)

    by austad (22163) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:04PM (#10691922) Homepage
    Could this lead to better language learning courses?

    Most of the language courses I've seen do not work well for how I think. They probably work well for how the author thinks, but everyone learns differently. Design a course based around research like this might be beneficial as everyone has already learned their primary language using this method.

  • Fascinating (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Lord_Dweomer (648696) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:06PM (#10691978) Homepage
    This is absolutely amazing.

    I have a great interest in language (and dialects) and am currently teaching myself Japanese and then Dutch (I pick the easy ones right?) and I've always thought that if I were to just learn their language with materials from grade schools and stuff like that, it would be much easier to learn. Think about it, remember all those dumb little rules about language you learn when you're little? Well, you learn that in grade school, with materials geared for children. The "teach yourself japanese" stuff out there does not address things in as simple a manner, which really is best to do if its a completely alien way of thinking (order of japanese sentences compared to english).

    I wonder if one day when they can make "brain software" if they'll be able to translate this concept into software to help us learn native languages.

    Perhaps a more practical present use for it would be to create an automatic language deciphering device, much like you would see on Star Trek.

  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:14PM (#10692138) Homepage Journal
    is how Stewie can speak with a Rex Harrison accent and an articulate vocubulary depsite living in Rhode Island with a bunch of people who aren't exactly geniouses......
  • In my neighborhood (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gone.fishing (213219) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:27PM (#10692387) Journal
    I live in what somepeople may call an inner-city neighborhood. Actually, it is a pretty nice middle class neighborhood but we have a lot of diversity. On our block we have Samolli, Hispanic, Black, White, mixed-race, and Hmong families. All of the kids play together even though some of them are only exposed to their native tounge at home (and some are too young for school).

    I frequently hear the kids use a mix of language as they play. One kid may yell in Spanish and get their answer in Hmoung - but they know what each other is saying. Less often (but it still happens) is one of the kids will talk to another kid in "their" language rather than the one they are most familiar with.

    As the kids age, it seems that they become a little more entrenched in their home lanuage and English. The Hmoung kids speak English without a trace of accent which really impresses me because their parents don't speak it at all and rely on the kids to be interpeters.

    All of the kids really impress me. When I was a child, you would have never seen a neighborhood so integrated. All of the parents make an effort to get along, all of the kids - they just simply get along, they don't even notice the differences!

  • by JohnnyGTO (102952) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:29PM (#10692436) Homepage
    My 18 month old has a whole portfolio of hand, arm and facial expression to "speak" his mind. It's actually very amazing to watch! And verbal comprehension is fantastic, he has the ability to comprehend what we want him to do without any prior instruction. For example he has never been asked to pick his toys up and put them in his play pen. Nor have we ever used the phrase put your cars in your play pen but to my amazement last we when I asked him to do just that he smile rocked back and forth on his heels and got right to cleaning up his toys.

    Now what about reading, do the same thoughts hold true about a child ability to learn to read and when is a good time to start them?

  • Human interaction (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Otto-matic (316521) <quantaman0@noSPAm.excite.com> on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:38PM (#10692572)
    I found it interesting and notable that infants are more sensitive to the speech patterns of human interaction than they are to audio-visual representation of it. I think there is an important message for modern parents, here. The TV is a poor babysitter. Get the DVD player out of your minivan and start talking to your baby. I am a single father of an 8-year-old girl, and I've spent her life having conversations with her. We don't have TV reception (how un-American of us), though we do watch movies once or twice a month. I've never used "baby-talk" to relate to her, and she is consistently being praised for her precocious and mature disposition, enunciation, vocabulary, and ability to elucidate her thoughts clearly. I know that there is a separate division of developmental psychology that deals with the application of these research discoveries, so I hope that all of this will be included in practical articles in parenting periodicals and such. Too many children are being crippled by a dearth of human interaction. Otto
  • by thpdg (519053) on Monday November 01, 2004 @05:47PM (#10692727) Journal
    I've heard the comment quite a few times that learning programming languages, and being a good programmer is inherent in people who can also pick up good spoken languages. When I started to learn German, I started off strongly, making connections to English. Then, I found myself going back to the dictionary, for things I should have been able to remember. Then it hit me one day that I program the same way. When does this functionality in our brain shut down, and are programmers doing anything to keep it running?
  • by erroneus (253617) on Monday November 01, 2004 @06:25PM (#10693277) Homepage
    From the summary I read, I begin to wonder which languages offer the most flexible base from which to learn new languages?

    It seems that native speakers of asian languages either have the hardest time or the easiest time learning new languages... but that's just my limited observation and likely to be highly skewed.

    But as a resident of Texas, I am exposed quite frequently to English (Germanic root) and Spanish (Latin root) language variants (think inner city). I don't find it at all difficult to pick up new bits of language whether it's English, Spanish or even of some asian origin such as Mandarin or Korean. Not bragging since I'm not functional in any language except English and that's a subjective measure.

    I once heard a Turkish guy suggest to me that he coule probably learn new languages better than me simply because my native language is English and that Turkish offers a much more versatile base for learning languages. You can imagine how insulted I felt when someone suggested they could do something better than me based on something like that. So I wonder if there is a statistical advantage to various languages as a basis for learning others?
  • by Oori (827315) on Monday November 01, 2004 @08:04PM (#10694441)
    As someone who actually read the entire article, I can attest it can really pass a 1.5 hour flight. It *might* also be interesting reading for those interested in some cutting edge child research methods such as ERP electrophysiology for kids.
    What's not clear to me is the value in Slashdot putting up a pointer to an article that can only be read with subscription service that costs an arm and a leg, and is usually only freely available only to lucky folks in the .EDU domains.

    Finally, let me drop my 2 cents on the original posting that cited the paper as saying about infants: "They also learn phonotactic rules".
    This statement is phrased rather loosely. Just because infants' behavior indicates that they can determine whether stimuli correspond or do not correspond to a rule certainly does not mean that the mental representation system that afforded this discrimination actually works by representing anything akin to rules.
    You don't need a rule-based system to be able to determine whether a certain input corresponds or doesn't correspond to a set of constraints (see the classical debates between Pinker and McLelland on the acquisition of the past-tense in English).
    Saying that infants learn "rules" is therefore a bit misleading.
  • by NeoSkandranon (515696) on Tuesday November 02, 2004 @12:34AM (#10696778)
    Disclaimer: My mother is a speech pathologist (in a nutshell her job is teaching kids to talk who cant for various reasons)

    She's come across several (and I myself at my workplace) children who were taught from the get-go spanish and english side by side. (Due to parents reading that teaching a child a second language will make it a genius or some such)

    Result? at 2 or 3 years of age the child knows some english, some spanish, neither one as well as would be normal for the age, and cant differentiate between the two languages (ie, speaks in a mixture of both depending on which words come to mind)

    I've got no problem with languages, and I do think children should be taught at least one, however from my experiences and reading it seems like one should at least hold off until the kid has a solid grasp on a primary language to start in on a second one.

    Could someone well versed in linguistics comment on this? It could be just my location (backwoods, basically) and a string of people who havent implemented teaching 2 languages in a method that would avoid the scenario i described

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