Professor Discusses Babies’ Language Skills

Infant Language Acquisition
Charlene M. Mortyn

Dr. Patricia Kuhl, of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, discusses infant language acquisition as part of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior’s Annual Distinguished Lecture series.

Babies are able to differentiate minute sound distinctions that would otherwise be lost to adults, University of Washington professor of speech and hearing sciences Patricia K. Kuhl said on Tuesday.

In the first talk of a two-part lecture series organized by the Human, Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, Kuhl discussed babies’ ability to learn vowel patterns quickly.

“Seven-year-old children are geniuses at learning languages, but with every two- or three-year advancement in age, their ability to learn languages declines dramatically,” Kuhl said. “After puberty, it becomes increasingly more difficult to learn languages at such a fast rate.”

Kuhl explained that developmental disabilities take hold early.

“The hope is that if you have a biomarker for any of these disabilities, you could go in and do something about atypical learning patterns and change the trajectory of a child’s life,” she said.


Kuhl also discussed an experiment that proved the importance social context plays in early child language acquisition.

The experiment placed a group of ten-month-old babies in a series of sessions lasting thirty-five minutes that introduced the infants to foreign language instruction in a face-to-face, private lesson setting. A second group of infants was shown a television screening of the same lessons.

The first group, which received personal instruction from a real human, recognized the vowel patterns of foreign languages at a much higher rater than the group of babies who viewed the televised lessons, implying the importance of social interaction for early language acquisition, she said.

“The more social behavior that took place during the sessions, the better learning the babies had on the phonetic level,” Kuhl said.

Kuhl further explained that babies commit the architecture of native language sound properties to propel rapidly to perceptions of foreign language sound properties to propel rapidly to perceptions of foreign languages.

“If babies are good at non-native languages in their first months, they will have more difficulty learning non-native languages later on because they will not have established the initial native language techniques to comprehend the patterns of foreign languages,” she said.

She said that the phonetic discriminations of a seven-month-year-old child predicted the reading skills of that child at age five.

“What children are doing early in locking onto sounds of language is a profound measurement of future learning,” Kuhl said.