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

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?

  • 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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Exceptions prove the rule, and wreck the budget. -- Miller