Social Language

As adults it is be very difficult to learn new languages – especially if these are languages that have vastly different sounds.

Obviously we are born with the ability to hear all sounds. However, by the end of our first year we have lost the ability to hear sounds not present in the language used by our carers.  This ability is generally lost between 10 and 12 months of age.

Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, conducted a research project with American babies aged between 10 and 12 months to see if this loss was reversible.

These babies, who had never heard any language other than English, were exposed to 12 sessions of Mandarin Chinese.

The first lot of babies were exposed to Mandarin by way of a native speaker who came and played and spoke with them.

By the end of the twelve sessions, these babies had recovered their ability to hear sounds in Mandarin and were as proficient as babies of the same age who had been listening to Mandarin all of their lives.

Two other groups of babies, of exactly the same age, were also exposed to 12 sessions of Mandarin.  One group of babies were shown the sessions on a TV, the other just had an audio soundtrack while being shown a picture of a teddy bear.

Neither of these groups made any progress in their ability to hear the sounds in Mandarin.

Patricia Kuhl and her researches concluded that the babies’ learning was controlled by their social brain and therefore only turned on when they were interacting with another human being.

If babies learn best when interacting with other human beings, maybe that is true about how we learn all sorts of things and not just language?

And perhaps it is true not only in infants but also in adults?

If so, does this research have any implications for our educational systems both formal and informal?

At the very least, when we interact with babies – even as strangers – what are they learning from us?

The video is here – (I realise there are more babies but they are pretty cute…)