Monday, July 20, 2009
Each language uses a unique set of sounds. Scientists now know babies are born with the ability to distinguish all of them, but that ability starts weakening even before they start talking, by the first birthday.
Kuhl offers an example: Japanese doesn't distinguish between the "L" and "R" sounds of English -- "rake" and "lake" would sound the same. Her team proved that a 7-month-old in Tokyo and a 7-month-old in Seattle respond equally well to those different sounds. But by 11 months, the Japanese infant had lost a lot of that ability.
The problem for those older is this:
Mastering your dominant language gets in the way of learning a second, less familiar one, Kuhl's research suggests. The brain tunes out sounds that don't fit.
"You're building a brain architecture that's a perfect fit for Japanese or English or French," whatever is native, Kuhl explains -- or, if you're a lucky baby, a brain with two sets of neural circuits dedicated to two languages.
It's remarkable that babies being raised bilingual -- by simply speaking to them in two languages -- can learn both in the time it takes most babies to learn one. On average, monolingual and bilingual babies start talking around age 1 and can say about 50 words by 18 months.
Technology is working to overcome that deficiency for those of us who missed that chance.
What might help people who missed their childhood window? Baby brains need personal interaction to soak in a new language -- TV or CDs alone don't work. So researchers are improving the technology that adults tend to use for language learning, to make it more social and possibly tap brain circuitry that tots would use.
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