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Education Science

Toddlers May Learn Language By Data Mining 213

Posted by kdawson
from the network-effects dept.
Ponca City, We Love You writes "Toddlers' brains can effortlessly do what the most powerful computers with the most sophisticated software cannot: learn language simply by hearing it used. A ground-breaking new theory postulates that young children are able to learn large groups of words rapidly by data-mining. Researchers Linda Smith and Chen Yu attempted to teach 28 children, 12 to 14 months old, six words by showing them two objects at a time on a computer monitor while two pre-recorded words were read to them. No information was given regarding which word went with which image. After viewing various combinations of words and images, however, the children were surprisingly successful at figuring out which word went with which picture. Yu and Smith say it's possible that the more words tots hear, and the more information available for any individual word, the better their brains can begin simultaneously ruling out and putting together word-object pairings, thus learning what's what. Yu says if they can identify key factors involved in this form of learning and how it can be manipulated, they might be able to make learning languages easier for children and adults. Understanding children's learning mechanisms could also further machine learning."
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Toddlers May Learn Language By Data Mining

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  • Interesting (Score:5, Insightful)

    by chuckymonkey (1059244) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `notrub.d.selrahc'> on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @12:57AM (#22317408) Journal
    This is why I've never talked to either of my children in "baby talk". I've always talked to them like they're adults (minus swearing and things like that) and as a result my eldest talks like a six or seven year (she's two) and my youngest... well she's just a few months old but she knows mom and dad. It really is interesting to see the difference between the children that aren't expected to speak and those that are. My eldest has never gotten away with pointing and grunting for things, she always had to at least try to say what she wanted and we'll do the same for the baby when she's around the right age. What kills me though is that the eldest is starting to use sarcasm.... that just blows my mind when she does it. Children's minds are the most amazing things, when people say sponge that doesn't even begin to describe it. Given a lot of patience and a lot of work from the parents children can learn at incredible rates. I only wish that I knew more languages so that I could teach them at this young age so they'd be fluent, I'm really considering taking a job in Europe partially for that reason and cultural exposure for them.
  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:18AM (#22317548) Homepage Journal
    When my son was a couple of months old he started to use the word "poo" when we were changing his nappy. Of course, he heard that word a lot in that context. This article doesn't surprise me at all.

    Eventually he abandoned that behaviour and later replaced it with a more sophisticated model. Presumably he had then collected enough data to get a better idea of how our language worked.
  • Effortless? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by krazytekn0 (1069802) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:18AM (#22317550) Homepage Journal
    Have you ever watched a toddler try to talk? Nothing about learning to talk is "effortless" anyone who says so either not a parent, or not thinking clearly.
  • Re:Effortless? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyYar (622222) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:24AM (#22317586)

    Nothing about learning to talk is "effortless" anyone who says so either not a parent, or not thinking clearly.
    That's what I was thinking. They get so frustrated when they can't say what they want to say. 50% of my current parenting is spent calming the child down from frustration (she's almost 2). It seems about as effortless as training for a marathon.
  • Re:Effortless? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by krazytekn0 (1069802) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:40AM (#22317680) Homepage Journal
    My issue is not with talking per-se, it's with the idea that LEARNING to talk is "effortless", it's not. The majority of Toddlers spend a fair amount of time frustrated because of what they are trying to learn. If you're a parent and honestly think that it's easy being that age than either A. you don't know your kid very well, or B. Your kid is super-human. Do little kids typically get their nouns confused all the time because learning to talk is effortless? Are parents instinctually wired to speak differently (slowly, smaller words, concise meanings) around their children because it's so easy and "effortless" to learn language? There are reasons that people are always shortening words and titles around little children, and it's because it's HARD to learn all the stuff that they learn every day. And adults know this deep down and do what they can to create a kind of transitional language for their little ones.
  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:53AM (#22317742) Journal
    "what seemed far more interesting to me is why when we reach a certain age it becomes significantly harder to acquire languages"

    Someone who is raised with a single language does not even hear certain sounds in other languages because their brain has long since rejected those sounds as irrelevant 'noise'. The same thing applies to vision, a baby sees every meercat face as different but adults don't (without a lot of practice).

    A babies brain actually loses a lot of connectivity between neurons in the first year of life (not so much data minning as connection breaking/forming). In other words we are all programmed by our early environment to exclude irrelevant stimuli, hacking into that 'code' later in life can be extremely difficult.
  • Re:Effortless? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Skippy_kangaroo (850507) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:54AM (#22317758)
    I'll agree with your sentiment but disagree in some respects.

    It takes time for a child to learn language. A toddler can get frustrated when parents (or others) don't understand what they want. But the language acquisition process is not hard in the same way as learning is hard for adults. They do not need to conciously do it. It is more instinctive and automatic than if I were to try to learn another language. Furthermore, the problem is not understanding and learning the language - the problem is expressing themselves and being mature enough to deal with not getting what they want. Toddlers have amazing understanding, but limited ability to express themselves.

    So I would argue that learning languages for children is easy (comparatively speaking). But there is a lot more to growing up and communicating than just learning language - and some of those bits are hard.
  • Re:Effortless? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Belial6 (794905) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:10AM (#22317834)
    You are correct. People are always amazed at how quickly children learn to speak. I say that if you took your average adult, put them into a fully immersive foreign language environment, where they could not get anything for themselves, they would learn the foreign language even faster than a child. Heck, to make it a fair comparison, you also would have to give the adult multiple tutors who will happily spend every day helping with identifying words and correcting pronunciation.

    Depending on your definition, most kids would not be considered fluent with their first language until the age of 4 or 5, and then generally still speak it with an accent. I would say that this is not all really any different than an adult. They are actually probably a little slower.
  • by jp25666 (620034) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:28AM (#22317928)
    That might be part of it, but that's definitely not the whole story. In particular, there are some language errors that babies simply do not make. Likewise, there is a general pattern that all babies follow when acquiring a language. These aspects of acquisition cannot be explained by positive reinforcement alone: they are a result of general cognition or the language faculty, or they are somehow an artifact of the human language learning algorithm.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chuckymonkey (1059244) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `notrub.d.selrahc'> on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @03:10AM (#22318142) Journal
    You're very very correct in that. That's why I always take the time to explain things to her especially if she asks a question, most people make the mistake of thinking that children don't understand things and for some things that's true, for most though that is very wrong. For instance when I'm cooking I always let her be my little helper and explain the entire process while I do it, such as bread. I show her the measurements for everything and explain what they are, tell her about the different ingredients and what they do, even explaining that the yeast is a tiny little plant that eats the sugar I put in to make the dough grow big by releasing CO2. Everything can be a learning experience for a kid, you just have to try to make it that way and be very very patient.
  • by Jurily (900488) <jurily AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:45AM (#22318786)
    it was well understood by researchers in language acquisition that context played a significant role in both first and second language acquisition, but especially first.

    It should even in the second. In fact, that's the primary and most effective mode of learning for the human brain. That's also why formal education sucks.
  • by Half-pint HAL (718102) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @07:05AM (#22319062)

    I only wish that I knew more languages so that I could teach them at this young age so they'd be fluent

    Do what my mum did: buy albums of kids songs in foreign languages (in my case only French). When I was about four, I could sing in a perfect French accent. Didn't have a clue what I was saying, but the accent was there. When I started learning French about 8 years later I had no problems. My ear was primed and my mouth was primed, so I could handle the sound system without problems, and it's the sounding like a foreigner/lunatic that frustrates most people when learning languages.

    HAL.

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