Research is uncovering how babies learn language and the findings are astonishing. In this guest post, Best Beginnings Executive Director Abbe Hensley recounts an Alaska visit from a leading brain development researcher.

Posted by Abbe Hensley, Best Beginnings

It is almost scary. Listen to Dr. Patricia Kuhl on how babies learn language and it’s astonishing how much is going on behind those big, wondering, wide open baby eyes. Dr. Kuhl spoke earlier this fall at the University of Alaska Anchorage Freshman Convocation and her talk was riveting. The title of her talk was “How infants crack the speech code: Exploring minds in the making using the tools of modern neuroscience.”You can listen to her talk here. – Dr. Kuhl was also featured on KSKA’s “Kids These Days,” which can be heard here.

Dr. Kuhl is Co-Director of the UW Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and Director of the University of Washington’s NSF Science of Learning Center .

Her work has implications for bilingual education and reading readiness, for early diagnosis of developmental disabilities such as autism, and for research on ‘critical periods’ in human development.

A few tidbits from Dr. Kuhl’s August talk:

  • From birth to 7, children are geniuses at learning language. After that, it gets a lot harder, as most adults can attest.
  • There’s a critical period in language development between 8 months and 10 months. Before that, babies learn multiple languages easily. Then they begin the shift to a dedicated language, the one they hear most frequently.
  • Babies are social learners; human interaction is essential to learning language. “The more social the baby, the more learning there is. The degree of social interaction is a predictor of learning,” Dr. Kuhl said.
  • Babies are statistical learners. Infants are very aware of the frequency of sounds; their brains literally compute how often they hear sounds.
  • Baby talk – called “motherese” and “parentese” – is universal and it’s anything but meaningless. Motherese is characterized by real words, higher pitch, and long pauses. Studies of motherese are also bringing new insights into early diagnosis of autism. Normal babies love motherese – it’s like brain food. Yet autistic babies prefer non-speech sounds over motherese.

Dr. Kuhl shared some take-home lessons, as well. When teenage mothers at Head Start in San Antonio, Texas, learned how much impact they could have by reading and talking to their babies, they became very excited and very engaged. They simply hadn’t realized how much it mattered.