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Education Science

Toddlers May Learn Language By Data Mining 213

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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  • by linest ( 157204 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:03AM (#22317442)
    What they've done is taken the same old thing that wasn't clearly understood and put the label "data mining" on it. Now that it's been labeled, some will feel like we've got a better handle on it than we did before.
  • by mrxak ( 727974 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:06AM (#22317470)
    Yeah, isn't it a lot of almost random trial-and-error, paying attention to non-verbal clues? Like, when a baby smiles, it gets a lot of attention. When a baby manages to put together something simple like ma-ma or da-da, suddenly there's happy parents all jumping up and down with excitement.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:18AM (#22317544)
    Mine says "wa-wa" for water, and that's the way I likes it!

    I also let her run around the park while her brethren are in various classes. I guess she'll never be president. I do wish I knew Spanish, though - that seems to be a more and more popular language these days in the US.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:28AM (#22317608)
    True, this does have nothing to do with the acquisition of language. Individual words associated to objects isn't even a small portion of language. Language is grammar, putting words together coherently to express ideas. There's a big difference from just saying "water" to "I want water".

    Buzz-words aside, this is common knowledge. Babies and toddlers can learn as astounding rates at that age. Just talk to them as you would normally and they'll be talking themselves sooner than you can expect. 18 months is practically the age where nearly everyone in my family, including myself, started talking with enough vocabulary to express ourselves and communicate. This is no new discovery.

    There have already been studies showing that kids below age 8 or so can learn any number of languages just by simple exposure. That's how I became bilingual, when I moved to the US when I was 4. Why are we bothering to put new words onto things we already know?
  • by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:47AM (#22317718)
    Anyone here familiar with the Nicaraguan school for deaf-mute children in the early eighties?

    The first phase of the project was to teach these children the sign-alphabet. After this, I'm not sure if they were going to teach the full english or spanish sign-language (seems there's not an international standard for sign-language), but the point is that after a year, the experiment was deemed a failure and abandoned.

    Then a couple of years later, reports started trickling out of these deaf-mute children exchanging unintelligible gibberish with their hands. A couple of researchers flew in, and were astonished to discover that these kids, using the sign-alphabet as a starting point, had developed a complete, unique language of their own in just two or three years - the first ever documented report of a fully formed, structured language bursting spontaneously into existence. These children are, of course, now adults in their thirties, still in touch with each other and communicating amongst themselves in the language they invented three decades ago.

    And now, for something completely different...

    Terrence McKenna, that lovable old psychonaut, postulated an empirical assumption in the eighties and nineties - language was created over many generations, via deep psilocybin trance rituals, of which the whole tribe partook. One by one, abstract concepts emerged in the back and forth play between members of the tribe, led and refereed of course by the shaman.

    The Nicaraguan kids have poked serious holes into McKenna's whimsical idea. As it turns out, children can develop fully formed languages almost overnight! And so, with concrete data, a new possibility has arisen - languages burst upon the world from the mouths of children, and never mind the psychedelic substances.
  • Multiple languages (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Max Romantschuk ( 132276 ) <> on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:52AM (#22317740) Homepage
    I'm a parent in a bilingual family. (Finnish & Swedish, two fundamentally different languages.) One of the more interesting things is the way my kids pick up grammar. I speak Swedish to the kids (my first language) and my wife speaks Finnish. The kids (even our younger one and a half year olds) understand both languages more or less perfectly, but they do tend to mess up grammar and sometimes words between them. Every now and then they use the grammar of one language to conjugate a word from the other. It's all pretty interesting.

    But I personally believe that the human brain does a hell of a lot more data mining than we give it credit for. There's a damn good reason why things seem clearer after a good night's sleep. The human brain is designed for massively parallel information processing, and we can't possibly handle it all in a conscious processing context. A lot happens behind the scenes. I'm guessing it's going to be quite some time still until we can fully understand the "inner workings" of the human brain.
  • Rosetta Stone (Score:5, Interesting)

    by KermodeBear ( 738243 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @01:55AM (#22317766) Homepage
    This is how the Rosetta Stone software works, if anyone was ever curious. Several pictures are shown with a phrase in the foreign language - no translation at all. You have to pick the right one. It goes through permutations of the phrase with different pictures and you eventually learn what each of the words means. It's very effective, much better than the rote memorization that I had to do in school.
  • by backformed ( 1184547 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:16AM (#22317870)
    This isn't proof that children acquire language by some sort of data mining process.

    When children start coming up with overregularizations like "goed" instead of "went" or "playses" in place of "plays," that kind of attempt at applying regular morphological rules to irregular items, is when you might say they are acquiring language via data mining. I.e., they hear a form used often enough that it becomes part of their knowledge about words, to the extent that that form is unconsciously applied even to make words they have certainly never heard in adult speech before.

    1. I will graduate this May with a B.A. in linguistics.
    2. First language acquisition is not wholly understood as of yet, but suffice it to say that it's more complicated and there are many more factors involved than the article makes it seem.
    3. Sorry if I'm misunderstanding what they mean by "data mining.")
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:28AM (#22317930)
    I'd like to see them do this with a language uncommon to the children in order to control for how much language they hear at home or how advanced their usage is.
  • Re:Interesting (Score:5, Interesting)

    by xigxag ( 167441 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:44AM (#22318016)
    I don't know any of the science in this area, but since everywhere I've been in the world, across languages and cultures, parents seem to speak "baby talk" to their kids, I would guess that it has some purpose, evolutionarily speaking. I'm not saying you're doing anything wrong, I'm just saying don't be so sure it is a superior method. Also, I'd venture a guess that at some point, your little ones will more or less know English and that will be that. And eventually other kids will catch up to their level, and maybe surpass them.

    My GF's nephew grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and was basically fluent at 4. But now, at age 13, he seems to have mostly forgotten it in favor of his dominant language, English. Same thing happened with a GF I had when I was much younger. Kids have a tremendous ability to learn things. But also to utterly forget them.
  • by gujo-odori ( 473191 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:48AM (#22318036)
    I'm also parent in a bilingual family (English and Vietnamese, and I'm starting to introduce our kids to Japanese, my own second language), and our kids went through that phase as well, plus an extra twist or two.

    Our kids were both born in Viet Nam, but our older one learned to talk there and was initially a monolingual Vietnamese speaker, while our younger one learned to talk in the United States and was initially a monolingual English speaker, who understood some Vietnamese but could not speak it. As the older one acquired English after we moved to the United States, she began to lose Vietnamese and gravitate exclusively toward English because there was only one other Vietnamese speaker in the house (my wife), but two English speakers (myself and her sister), and she sorted out very early that we didn't talk like her and mommy.

    After a couple of consecutive summer-long visits to Viet Nam with my wife, our younger has acquired Vietnamese and it has stuck (it didn't stick much after her first summer) and our older one is once again fully bilingual. She's been able to interpret between Vietnamese and English since she was three. We plan to keep up regular visits to Viet Nam, at least every other year for a long time to come, to make sure their Vietnamese fully cements itself. Typically, ten years old is the cutoff point for that. I had a classmate in college who was fully bilingual, with native accent, in Japanese and English. She was 10 when her parents immigrated to the United States. Her younger brothers were 7 and 8 at that time, and they both lost their first language, growing up to be monolingual English speakers who could understand a small amount of Japanese.
  • by rucs_hack ( 784150 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @02:56AM (#22318082)
    When a baby manages to put together something simple like ma-ma or da-da, suddenly there's happy parents all jumping up and down with excitement.

    Actually, the first sound (aside from crying) that a baby is capable of forming is the sound 'ma', and subsequently 'ma-ma'. Unfortunately, all those mothers who believe their child is referring to them are mistaken, although the term rapidly becomes associated with mother anyway, so it gets to be true after a while.

    It should be obvious really, how else would every child ever born (that could vocalise) select the same sound?

    I'm less sure about da-da. I know 'da' is another sound that a child can form earlier, but that's all.
  • by gujo-odori ( 473191 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @03:19AM (#22318178)
    I give a little more weight to the "ma ma" = "baby is talking to mom" than that. The reason why is my first daughter's first word as an infant was the Vietnamese world for "dad" ( b). She didn't start using the word for "mother" (m ) until much later. Coincidence? Possibly, but she had the tone correct as well, not just the consonant+vowel sound, which is a stronger argument for actual speech rather than coincidence. Additionally, she would say it only when she saw me, not at other times.
  • by potpie ( 706881 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @03:24AM (#22318202) Journal
    It's actually very interesting how big a role context plays. If a child sees a ball under a table and hears adults referring to it as a ball, the child knows that it is a ball. However, the child cannot be sure exactly what makes it a ball. Does it have to be shiny? Does it have to be round? Does it have to be under a table? Does it have to be in the daytime? Does it have to be a certain color? Does it have to be positioned in a certain way? Does it need to be a certain size? Since the child does not have all this information, overextensions occur. For instance, a child may refer to a dog as a rug because he thinks "rug" means "something furry." Meaningful input is also a huge part of the acquisition mechanism, as you say, but it goes beyond emotional reaction. Actually, children are resistant to correction. If your child keeps making a mistake over and over again, instruction will not help, only time and hearing the correct usage enough. This goes along with the "Active Construction of a Grammar" model.
  • by Mints ( 146243 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @04:51AM (#22318604)
    While the term "spontaneous" is thrown around in popular accounts of Nicaraguan Sign Language, there was more going on.

    Before the 1970s, the was no deaf community in Nicaragua. Each deaf child had to make their own way in life, usually aided by a crude system of signs--called a home signing system--developed with their speaking parents. In the 1970s, however, a school for the deaf was founded and children from all over Nicaragua came to it. There was some debate over which sign language was going to be taught at the school and things stalled for awhile, but in the mean time the children standardized their home signing systems with one another--made them uniform--and developed a pidgin language, which may be thought of as a language lacking some of the sophistication in grammar we associate with language. For the most part, the teachers were able to cope with this pidgin language, though sometimes it became incomprehensible.

    Now very relevant to TFA is that as younger children came to the school (and other children grew up), the older kids continued to use this pidgin language (into adulthood even) but the youngest children showed signs of a more sophisticated language. So much so that their teachers who had managed to communicate, however haltingly, with with the students of the school found themselves completely unable to understand the young children by the late 1980s. Each new class of students--joining the school at a very young age--was able to adapt and extend the language, making it more expressive and robust because--as this article would argue--their young brains were so much better equipped to the task.

    What Nicaraguan Sign Language suggests is not only are children better equipped to learn a language, they are likely to be the source of language invention. Each "generation" of deaf Nicaraguan children were able to use the language of their predecessors with a greater fluency. That is, they invented new degrees of fluency, new nuances of expression.

    Disclaimer: I'm a linguistics student, though this isn't my field.
  • by brown-eyed slug ( 913910 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @05:29AM (#22318726) Homepage

    Yes it's true that children will learn the rules and then apply them, sometimes inappropriately, until they learn the exceptions. I expect that your nieces/nephews who use "ran" have simply heard that word used more often in the right context and have therefore learned this particular irregularity.

    My own son gave a classic example some time ago of a sentence showing he was part way through this learning process. I can't for the life of me remember what it was, which is very annoying, but he was using two irregular verbs, one correctly and one not. Along the lines of "The glass breaked when I ran over it"

    The good news is that as language evolves, irregular verbs are gradually being "regularized". []

  • by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @06:03AM (#22318834) Homepage Journal
    Between the ages of about three and five my son got into the habit of preferring incorrect versions of some words. For example "spigot" instead of "biscuit" and "hostable" instead of "hospital".

    In both cases he seemed to think his version rolled of the tongue better and should be used.

    If I have a point it is that the child is to some extent making the language up as they go. As with other parts of their development they test boundaries all the time. If the language they learn is deficient in some way they will not hesitate to improve it.
  • by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2008 @09:35AM (#22319802)
    Oops, you're absolutely right. Here's the Wikipedia link: []

The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity -- the rest is overhead for the operating system.