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Infants learn languages so easily. In particular, they are able to distinguish the important sounds in a language.

Below are two videos of lectures given by Professor Patricia Kuhl (University of Washington) exploring how infants learn language.

The first first, the shorter of the two, is a TEDx presentation; the latter is a longer exposition given at the University of Washington. Both are aimed at a general audience.

You may wish to skip the introductions in the second talk: start six and half minutes in if you’d rather just see ‘the meat’. This second talk is a little older: it’s from two years ago, but it also has more detail. (And wordier, but that comes with the setting she is speaking in.)

One word about her TEDx talk before watching. In it Prof. Kuhl shows a slide of the drop-off language learning ability as we age. As she explains more fully in her longer talk (at about 15 minutes in) this presents the ability to learn new language sounds from a second language. This is not quite the same as learning to speak a new language as an adult. One of the commenters, Yuhfen Lin, put it better than I could:

What she means is that as a person grow old, the ability [to] differentiate sounds in [a] different language decrease dramatically after puberty. It is possible to learn pronunciation (how to pronounce a new sound) if you have a good language teacher. But it is very hard to learn to hear the sound even when you know how to produce it.

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I guess you’re wondering why I emphasised ‘spoken’ in my title.

There are sign languages, too: visual languages as used by many deaf communities.*

Infants learn these ’natively’ as well, processing visual signals rather than auditory ones.

Sounds are tricky things for an infant to make accurately: simple ’proto-signs’ are easier. An upshot is that quite young infants are able to make simple communications with adults using simple signs.

I’ve experienced this at first-hand. Even with a little sign language experience (as I do), it’s surprising the first time you see it.

You’ll have all heard of ’baby sign’, promoted as a way to communicate with young children. This popular video, with over 3 million views, gives you an idea of what I mean:

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Professor Kuhl talks about software research projects aimed a spoken interfaces for computers in her longer presentation. There’s also work on sign language interfaces, too. (I have previously shown a video of direct brain interfaces: do watch that if you haven’t already – the future is looking remarkable, you’d have to say.)

Footnotes

I’m not a specialist in this area, but it’s fascinating.

* Aside from a casual interest in sign languages, another connection for me is a talk I gave as part of a fourth-year psychology course I sat in on a number of years ago that looked at early studies of brain activity during processing of signed languages and the background reading I did for this.

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