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Scientist Records First 5 Years of His Son's Life, Analyzes Language Development 160

Posted by Soulskill
from the strangely-does-not-name-him-truman dept.
jamie tips a story about MIT cognitive scientist Deb Roy, who started a project five years ago, upon bringing his newborn son home from the hospital, to record his family's movement and speech inside their house. Since then, Roy has used various techniques to analyze and distill the 200 terabytes of raw data into useful and interesting visualizations. "For example, Roy was able to track the length of every sentence spoken to the child in which a particular word — like 'water' — was included. Right around the time the child started to say the word, what Roy calls the 'word birth,' something remarkable happened. 'Caregiver speech dipped to a minimum and slowly ascended back out in complexity.' In other words, when mom and dad and nanny first hear a child speaking a word, they unconsciously stress it by repeating it back to him all by itself or in very short sentences. Then as he gets the word, the sentences lengthen again. The infant shapes the caregivers’ behavior, the better to learn." Roy also compiled videos showing each time his son used certain words over a period of many months, clearly illustrating how those parts of the child's linguistic capabilities evolved over time.
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Scientist Records First 5 Years of His Son's Life, Analyzes Language Development

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  • by xxxJonBoyxxx (565205) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:20PM (#35410342)

    In other words, when mom and dad and nanny first hear a child speaking a word, they unconsciously stress it by repeating it back to him all by itself or in very short sentences.

    As a father of three I can tell you that this behavior isn't "unconscious.". When your kids start to say words you will spend hours and then days saying them back to your children, to confirm what they said, to model better enunciation and to just to keep them engaged in a conversation with you. The words "by itself" bit is obvious - "affel" means either "I see an apple" or "I want a piece of your apple"; coaxing more out of your child at first would be torture and lead to frustration. "In short sentences" is also obvious - you wouldn't start your 18-month-year-old with long sentences.

    Is there a story here or is this just a way for a guy to spend five fun years with his kid while drawing a paycheck?

    • But my baby can read, because I bought the DVDs!

      http://www.bestbuy.com/site/As+Seen+On+TV+-+Your+Baby+Can+Read!+Learn+to+Read+System/9924297.p?id=1218196479432&skuId=9924297&cmp=RMX&ref=06&loc=01&ci_src=14110944&ci_sku=9924297 [bestbuy.com]

      But seriously, most children of any culture throughout history develop language and behavior at roughly the same intervals. Early Childhood Development is easily understood, observed and recorded. It's frankly the reason most schools are broken down by similar g

      • by Sir_Sri (199544)

        And because the british, french, and prussians education systems all interacted with each other. And if you didn't base your system on one of theirs, they had a few 'suggestions' backed by very big guns.

      • But my baby can read

        Forget learning to read. My son was signing at 6 months old. Not real well--but he could communicate what he wanted well enough.
        Kids are able to pick up on sign language and communicate before they are able to properly form vocal sounds.

    • by Marc_Hawke (130338) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:28PM (#35410464)

      I'm pretty sure he meant 'instinctive' rather than 'unconscious.' Famously, your baby did NOT come with a manual that told you when to simplify your sentences to help him learn. I'm not sure where the line between 'common sense' and 'instincts' is, or whether we're just doing what we've seen other people do (i.e. learned, but not necessarily taught.)

      Whatever you call it, however, 'unconscious' is definitely the wrong word.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Meddik (1849590)
        You didn't get the Manual? Heck, you can download it on PDF now!
      • Maybe instinctively was a better choice, but then there's this:

        The infant shapes the caregiversâ(TM) behavior, the better to learn.

        Really, researcher, the infant is in charge of the situation?

        I have the same problem with saying that guinea worm shapes sufferer's behavior. It might be convenient to get the host into the water, but this is more an evolutionary jackpot than any sort of control. It burns, people jump in the water, that works out for the parasite.

        Humans tend to mimic other peoples' speech

      • It didn't come with a manual, but for the obsessive parent, luckily there are hundreds of aftermarket guides, beginning with the ubiquitous Dr. Spock' Guide.

    • by suso (153703) *

      I'm also a father and can say that this is one of the things I was most curious about. How kids learn to start talking. There really is a lot of trial and error at first and it takes a while before kids say anything intelligible. Parents of course become good at decoding what kids want.

    • by chill (34294) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:30PM (#35410524) Journal

      Your post is an anecdote. He collected data. This is a story, and there an important difference.

      As for not being obvious about the short sentences... with my youngest son (4th child, now 20 months old), I made the conscious decision not only "no baby talk", but talk in full sentences just like I do to adults.

      I may say things 3 different ways, as well as point, draw and demonstrate but I still talk in normal adult-level conversation. You know, one step above PC tech support. :-)

      • Why do you only talk like an adult? As far as I know, there's no (or mixed) support for talking like an adult versus "motherese." What is known is that children prefer "motherese."

        • by chill (34294)

          Because normal speech is what the child hears when anyone else converses. If I or my wife are speaking to each other, or to the other kids, or on the phone, etc. it is all "normal" speech. I assumed, rightly or wrongly, that "baby talk" would add an element of confusion for the child as it isn't reinforced by what they are immersed in.

      • by CastrTroy (595695)
        Actually I would have to say he "collected an anecdote". He only has a sample size of 1. Because of the actual recordings, he has better ability to recall what actually happened, but it's still not much better than me offering information based on my experiences with my 3 kids. If he had done the same with a group of 50 kids, or even more kids, I would think the data might be different, or if it wasn't different, I would at least think it was more valid.
        • There is a difference between a case study and an anecdote. And, when dealing with humans, everything is an anecdote - because cultural, historical, generational and linguistic factors are not reproducible. Just being different people than our parents will make our children's experiences, skill acquisition, cognitive development, etc., different. The presence of different types of media technologies (and adults habituated to them) and so forth compounds that effect.

          So, even if I had an amazing diverse data

        • by Nadaka (224565)

          Most kids are not raised in double blind batches of 50.

          There are some experiments that are impractical.

          Some because of their scope.

          Some because you are potentially fucking up the lives of real human beings.

      • by ender- (42944) <doubletwist.fearthepenguin@net> on Monday March 07, 2011 @05:02PM (#35410974) Homepage Journal

        As for not being obvious about the short sentences... with my youngest son (4th child, now 20 months old), I made the conscious decision not only "no baby talk", but talk in full sentences just like I do to adults.

        We basically did the same thing with my daughter, now almost 6 years old. We never used baby talk [no 'baba' or 'wawa', always 'bottle' and 'water]. From day one we would talk to her constantly. We would explain every detail of everything we did in full sentences. Sure, we'd often use the high-pitched baby-talk cadence and tone [kids do respond to that and learn better from it], but always in full sentences .

        The end result? Well, she didn't start talking particularly early, but she did move into complex sentences and ideas well before her peers. By the *beginning* of Kindergarten she was reading at a 2nd grade level with full comprehension, and able to get gist of most 3rd grade level stuff and higher. She has an amazing grasp of language. As an example, in the first month of her Kindergarten class, her teacher was walking them through the hallways. The teacher was asking the students not to look into the open doors of other classrooms. The teacher struggled to find the right word when she told them that the other classes might find it 'disturbing'. My daughter immediately pipes up and corrects her, saying, "Actually, I think you mean 'distracting'."

        I'm no child development expert by any stretch of the imagination, but that strikes me as an amazing grasp of a very subtle difference in wording for a 5 year old to not only recognize, but immediately come up with the better word.

        We still use complex sentences when we speak with her, and make a point to pull out all the stops with the vocabulary we will use with her. She's very good about stopping us and asking us what a word means if there's one she doesn't understand.

        The downside to all of this is that she thinks most of her classmates are idiots, but frankly, she needs to learn to interact with people of differing abilities so she'll have to get over it. ;)

        Now we just need to work on her math skills...

        • by Lemmy Caution (8378) on Monday March 07, 2011 @05:54PM (#35411772) Homepage

          Now we just need to work on her math skills...

          You may have jinxed yourself a bit. Cultivating precocity in one dimension seems to delay and sometimes restrict development in others. Especially during the most plastic periods of brain development, when there is almost a "neural arms races" to recruit "real estate" for different fluencies, abilities etc. The best advice, if you want a well-rounded child, is simply to allow the process to go on naturally, prodding for extra effort to get over occasional hurdles. Having educated "cognitively engineered super-babies, I think one does a child few favors by pushing for precocity. In fact, there are signs that it can be counter-productive, when the natural momentum of the early start is exhausted and they have to start "working" at it again.

        • Maybe if we didn't teach kids to be retarded, they wouldn't be so shitty. I fucking hate children, but I find small asian kids unbelievably disturbing. Every child I meet is a retarded asshole... but the little chinese/japanese kids are like 3 years old, they're quiet, polite, they watch what they do, they get the fuck out of your way, and they don't touch your shit because it's there and they wanna get their grabby hands on it. WTF? It's unbelievably creepy. These are not the kids I'm used to.

          We're d

        • Good on her, for the word correction, but I think that she chose the wrong word. Looking into a class shouldn't distract. It's the walking past that would do it. "Disturb" might be better, in that it might make students inside the class wonder why they are being looked at. Before they even notice that they are being looked at, they are being distracted.

          I think that they both chose the words that reflected what they are trying to communicate, but the fact is that looking doesn't distract.

        • The teacher struggled to find the right word when she told them that the other classes might find it 'disturbing'. My daughter immediately pipes up and corrects her, saying, "Actually, I think you mean 'distracting'."

          It is very interesting that she did that, but not exactly justifiable. In a lot of cases, like this one, those words are pretty much interchangeable (a class - especially in kindergarten - requires attention to proceed smoothly, therefore distraction is disturbance). I find it curious that she phrased it as a correction instead of a question, like "do you mean 'distracting'?". I hope it's not the case, but I've seen my share of obnoxious kids with a certain excess of self-confidence and such behaviour is qu

          • Arguably, self-confidence -- however extreme, so long as it's commensurate with ability -- is not bad per se. Contempt for others less able is the real problem.

      • by MagicM (85041)

        As for not being obvious about the short sentences... with my youngest son (4th child, now 20 months old), I made the conscious decision not only "no baby talk", but talk in full sentences just like I do to adults.

        I think that most of the short sentences that GP is talking about are responses. Once a child starts saying "apple", a parent will more frequently say "you want some apple?" in response. As a result the average sentence length will go down. It has nothing to do with baby talk or even with conversation initiated by the parent.

    • by erroneus (253617)

      I find this to be interesting. I have noted that this same scientist is promoting some related software -- not something I am interested in. But the patterns of adults relating to children and the development of speech is of great interest to me.

      My third son is growing up "bi-lingual." His mother is Japanese and I am a native English speaker. It is typical for adults to speak more slowly to a child to ensure that they are getting the information being transmitted to them.... at least it is normal here i

      • I've been learning Japanese lately but my Hiragana is undeveloped. Been lazy with it though, I've had the language course for like a year now and I've gone through about 30 hours of study, with only 14 lessons so far... on average, I've done each twice. I need to pick up the pace; I have no real exposure. Same with German... it's amazing I can still chitchat with the girl at the meat market and order my food in Deutsch. (Aside, I strangely associate the original language with shit when I learn a languag
        • by Laser Dan (707106)

          I've been learning Japanese lately but my Hiragana is undeveloped. Been lazy with it though, I've had the language course for like a year now and I've gone through about 30 hours of study, with only 14 lessons so far... on average, I've done each twice. I need to pick up the pace; I have no real exposure.

          I have found that the only way to make progress in learning Japanese (and probably other languages) is to do a structured course where you are forced to continue at a regular pace once you start. Otherwise you just keep learning a bit, then leave it a while, then forget and re-learn. I have heaps of learning software but I never use it, so don't progress.

          In the first Japanese course I did, the first lesson or 2 were in roman characters to cover the basic structure, then we covered hiragana in one lesson and

          • then forget and re-learn.

            I never forget. In fact, I haven't studied Hiragana since 2 years ago, but every time I see Hiragana on food products at the store I recognize more somehow; but that is odd. I never forget spoken language though; when I was doing german, I would do a lesson once, stop for 3 months, then do the NEXT lesson starting cold.

            Learning to read and write is hard. I am about as skilled with American cursive script as I am with Hiragana.

      • My third son is growing up "bi-lingual." His mother is Japanese and I am a native English speaker.

        I'm about to become a father (next month) and we also plan on raising our daughter bi-lingual. My wife is German and I'm a native English speaker (and we live in Germany).

        I've been reading a great deal on the subject of bi-lingual children, and the most common theme I keep coming across is that around age 3, they're likely to be less skilled than their peers at both languages (so, my daughter's German won't be as good as 3 year old Germans, and her English won't be as good as a 3 year old native English sp

        • by erroneus (253617)

          Different children resist language differently. I have a friend who is Korean and both parents speak Korean to their children. However, their oldest girl prefers to speak English as she thinks English is better... but also, I suspect, she thinks Korean (or her parents) is less cool and does not want to be like them.

          I am astounded that my 3rd son never let go of English and even improved his English while away for 6 months. He has always shown preference to me over his mother in many respects and I think

    • by euxneks (516538)
      Has anyone else recorded a full five years of development including the surrounding environment and parental units? I think this is useful in learning cognition and child development specifically because it can corroborate or negate current models of child development. (I am not associated with this field) Just because it confirms a lot of hypotheses doesn't mean that makes it useless :)

      Not to mention he seems to have come up with a novel way to relate the data. Apparently he wants to use this in other
    • When one of my kids says "affel", I might wonder what he heard from his older brothers. When they get to "You affel!", the meaning becomes clear.
    • is this just a way for a guy to spend five fun years with his kid while drawing a paycheck?

      If you could, wouldn't you?,/p>

    • In other words, when mom and dad and nanny first hear a child speaking a word, they unconsciously stress it by repeating it back to him all by itself or in very short sentences.

      As a father of three I can tell you that this behavior isn't "unconscious.". When your kids start to say words you will spend hours and then days saying them back to your children, to confirm what they said, to model better enunciation and to just to keep them engaged in a conversation with you. The words "by itself" bit is obvious - "affel" means either "I see an apple" or "I want a piece of your apple";

      In my experience this behavior is stupidity. "Affel? Did woo zay affel? Yes you did, yes you did! Heeeeee~"

      In other words, when mom and dad and nanny first hear a child speaking a word, they unconsciously become retarded.

  • by wmbetts (1306001)

    Has anyone with kids not observed this?

    • My first word wasn't "Dada" or "Mama"... It was "Light". My parents have a home video of the event; It happened to be my cousin Mike's birthday party and my father was carrying me as he turned off the light when they brought in the cake with 8 burning candles. I can clearly be heard saying "Light" as he turns off the switch and seen reaching for the switch, but no one noticed at the time.

      A few minutes later they turn the light back on and I say "Light" again. This time people take notice -- They say,

  • by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:22PM (#35410378)
    Okay, he recorded his child. Has he made a theoretical breakthrough? Not much of one mentioned in the article. All it says is.. surprise, surprise... this guy is starting a new company he wants to promote. And it is based on this incredible software that this article doesn't really explain to us.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well, I for one think that any decent software that can parse that amount of data into any kind of useful and repeatable refined data is interesting.
      Especially if it does the vocal analysis automatically... It could be very interesting to analyze peoples speech patterns in any number of social interactions.
      I'm not sure it would be GOOD science but fun?

      Lets for instance say we have 4 IT admins hanging by the watercooler and the really hot intern walks by and shows his stuff off. Yes, his. I work in a female

    • That's because it's for the magazine Fast Company (I used to get it for free for some reason but thankfully it's stopped coming), which is geared towards entrepreneurs (it's not a particularly good magazine).
    • Back in the late '60s or early '70s I took a "Psychology of Language Acquisition" course for a humanities distribution requirement. One of the things we were told about was a researcher in the field who had sound-filmed most of her daughter's waking life for several years, to collect such data.

      An interesting artifact from that was that the daughter had coined a three-syllable word-like thing that sounded like "ah-WIDdah". (I think it was during the two- or three-word utterance stage.) She seemed to use i

  • by Stenchwarrior (1335051) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:24PM (#35410412)
    It's amazing to watch a human learn the art of speech. I wish I had begun recording at my daughter's first sounds and continued while they evolved into the full sentences she carries on now at three years old. Unless you have a chronicle of such events it's hard to remember when they could only say a few words, especially when it's hard to get them to stop talking long enough to eat dinner. Even as parents the speech patterns change as the child is old enough to understand and repeat...although there's not much funnier than hearing a toddler say "goddamnit", or "son of a bitch" - I think that's the entire premise that South Park was built on.
  • Useful data (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Animats (122034) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:28PM (#35410468) Homepage

    This is very useful data. We're going to know considerably more about how language really works once this is analyzed.

    A few more people need to do this, for comparison and confirmation. It also needs to be done for a tonal language, like Chinese.

  • ...news at 11!
  • by Abstrackt (609015) on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:42PM (#35410716)

    I think we always learn languages the same way, the only difference between a baby and an adult learning is that the baby doesn't have a first language to fall back on so their need to learn to communicate is greater.

    Watching my first kid learn to speak was like watching myself try to learn Spanish. First, was total immersion and a complete lack of understanding. Eventually, there were attempts at copying the sounds; these attempts eventually led into attempts at forming words. Once the vocabulary reached a certain level words got combined to form simple sentences with noises and pointing to fill in the rest. From there, you're relatively close to having a full conversation.

    • I'm taking an introductory Psych class and I just finished up a chapter on Language Acquisition. A note on how you saw mirrors of yourself learning Spanish and your first child:

      After a child is first born, they are actually able to hear all sounds made by all languages, and that incessant babbling (you can tell I don't have kids) is actually something all babies do and reflect all the sounds of all languages in the world. These babbling sounds are made up of "phonemes", the simplest amount of sound.
  • by lkcl (517947) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Monday March 07, 2011 @04:45PM (#35410750) Homepage

    whilst this is interesting, it is a statistical sample of one family and one family only, albeit a rather long sample. we do not, for example, "modify our sentence structure to repeat more frequently words when immediately learned", but we do find ourselves using words which we know that baby lilyana now knows, in order to more include her in our day-to-day lives: there's a subtle difference.

    one clarification: the article seems to be pointing out that it is through speech that the child "trains" the adults (not the other way round), the possible mistaken implication being that it is exclusively by speech that children get their adults to adapt to them. in fact, children do a hell of a lot more than use words to get their adults to do their bidding!

    as lilyana is 23 months, we will be leaving it another 6 months or so for her to basically do as she pleases, when she pleases, with us supporting her at every step, so that she gets a chance to see how the world works _without_ being made massively and irrevocably insecure or limited by "no" [except when it's dangerous!].

    • by lwsimon (724555)

      While I understand where you're coming from, I have a 2.5 year old, too. She's rarely told no, but often told the consequences of her actions first.

      She snapped her hand good with a rubber band a couple of days ago. I told her she would, and she looked at me, at the rubber band, then pulled it back and snapped it. Ten seconds of tears, and off to another experiment to see how stuff works ;0)

      • This is another reason why teaching young children (4 year olds are pretty good, oddly enough...) to play Go is a good idea. The learning process of Go is simple:

        1. You make an underplay.
        2. You get boxed in.
        3. You lose.
        4. You make an overplay.
        5. You get cut.
        6. You lose.
        7. Go to 4; however, the overplay will be smaller.

        You QUICKLY learn you can't do certain shit because bad things happen. Then the games get more complex because you play stronger players, less handicap, etc. You know you can't do certain shit, but you start

  • I'd hate to be the kid of such a scientist. Imagine growing up and running for public office, only to have "Bobby's Daily Poop Length Chart" show up on the internet.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    the time for 'words' is shrinking? see you at the play-dates. be there or be scared.

    we do have some intentions;

    1. DEWEAPONIZATION (not a real word, but they like it) almost nothing else good happens until some progress here.

    2. ALL BABYS CREATED/TO BE TREATED, EQUALLY. (a rough interpretation (probably cost us. seems like a no-brainer but they expressed that we fail on that one too(:)->) 'we do not need any 300$ 'strollers', or even to ride in your smelly cars/planes etc..., until such time as ALL of the

  • to the project's official page [mit.edu].
  • I did not RTFA, in pure /. fashion, but I'm wondering what would have happened if the author of the study had a girl. Every child develops their language skills on their own individual schedule, however, in my relatively small experience, girls tend to talk quicker than boys. My 18-month boy is struggling to say mama, dada, and banana, while my daughter at that age was stringing together a few words together. My wife's freaking out and is considering speech therapy if he doesn't talk by 2 years of age. My s

    • by emj (15659)

      when to go sit in a timeout (a little early to start with timeout, isn't it?.

      The modern age dunce cap [wikipedia.org], a wonderful tool for shaping the young minds of today.

  • why is this story tagged 'peeping tom'? if we're able to gain deeper insights into human cognitive abilities and language learning skills (which is a crucial part of developing strong AI), the price of privacy is cheap. the whole up-in-arms-about-privacy that people tend to get into is becoming more and more of a reactionary effect these days without them actually realizing the tradeoff and making a decision on a case-by-case basis.

    sometimes, it is worth it.

  • by pandrijeczko (588093) on Monday March 07, 2011 @06:02PM (#35411896)

    ...because everyone I know with a baby or toddler spends their *WHOLE* time either updating their status about it or putting up *YET MORE* photos of it.

    I don't wish harm to anyone or any kid on this planet but I just wish these people would GET A FUCKING LIFE outside their kids sometimes because it is FUCKING BORING!

    • I just wish these people would GET A FUCKING LIFE outside their kids sometimes

      Perhaps you could offer to babysit?

      Having a little person who is entirely dependant on you is extremely time consuming. Thoughtful people like yourself who are concerned about their "FUCKING BORING" lives could help out by giving them some free time.

      • A piece of advice:

        "If you can't cope with your own kids, then don't have them. Put something on the end of it."

        There, that one's free.

        • I don't remember any discussion of not coping with their kids, can you explain why you think your advice is appropriate (or at least relevant)?

          In any case, unless your advice comes with a free time machine it seems to be of little value.
        • by Americano (920576)

          It doesn't sound like your friends have an issue, it sounds to me like they're enjoying it so much that they want to share the experience with their friends and family via Facebook.

          From the sound of it, you're the one struggling to cope with the fact that people you know aren't focused on entertaining you first, last and always via their Facebook posts.

        • by tibit (1762298)

          Per your interpretation, "coping" must mean "getting rid of" -- a fucking life OUTSIDE, right? There's no amount of "coping" with a 3 month old that will enable you to leave him alone at home and go out for a date. Sure, he may sleep through the night at that age, but would you really want to place bets on that? Babies can get sick pretty quick, you can have a perfectly normal looking baby at 7pm, and a very sick one at 9pm, with vomit/diarrhea etc.

          We'd certainly go out a whole lot of our kids could stay at

  • So cam-whores are made, not born?

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