After living abroad, maybe someone has called you a “Citizen of the World,” as you now belong to more than one place. After leaving you tend to feel like you could go anywhere and the world doesn`t seem so big anymore. This has been my experience, and I think many others would agree.
The term “Citizen of the World” has come up yet again but this time for a much younger population: babies! In a recent TED Talk with Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, she explains how babies are the real “Citizens of the World,” linguistically-speaking.
New tools in modern neuroscience have shown the true magic that happens with babies in their brains during development. Children are naturally good at learning language (and better than adults), but why exactly? It is because of the critical period for learning, when their brains are more able and prepared to receive information, especially pertaining to language. Until the age of 7, children are “language geniuses really” and after 7, “they fall off the map,” Patricia tells us. If a child is to obtain the native accent of a language for example, they must be exposed (a lot) to the language before the age of 7. So one critical period for language development is before the age of 7!
There is another critical period between 6 to 8 months when babies are acquiring and mastering the specific sounds of the languages they hear around them, regardless of what language it is. In other words, during the short 2 month period, this is the time when babies are acquiring sounds which later become their language (or languages). If you expose a child to a native speaker of any language, during thistime, it will only make it easier for them to acquire that specific language, or another one similar, later.
This is what makes language learning different for children versus adults, because adults have already become “culture bound listeners” to their native language, knowing only those sounds. Adults are bound by memory and other representations that are formed early in development, where babies are able to acquire any sound which makes them true “Citizens of the World” for a time. What the babies are doing during this critical period is taking statistics of the distribution of specific sounds they hear during speech and then by understanding the distribution of sounds, they become “language bound listeners” to the sounds and language they hear most often. Eventually they adopt the language they are given–of their parents–which comes with all the sounds of that language, and it changes their brains.
To test this, Patricia showed a study where American babies who had not yet been exposed to a second language, were exposed to Mandarin Chinese for the first time during the critical period of 6 to 8 months. It was as if relatives came to stay with them for 12 sessions of time. At 10 to 12 months, the babies were tested again and showed to be just as good with the sounds as other Taiwanese babies who had been listening to those sounds from birth! This shows you how critical the critical period actually is. The same test was done by using only video and then only audio, but there were no results, showing that it takes an actual human voice, in person, to do the trick. Babies are social learners it seems.
By watching the actual video
, perhaps some of the linguistic implications would be more clear, but this is a detailed explanation as to specifically why babies can acquire language so easily. The older they get, there are other factors, but parents – consider this for your children! If you are interested in giving your child the ability to speak more than one language at some point in their lives, these short few months could make a lot of the difference.
Here is a summary of her TED talk
, which I highly recommend watching!