An article in the Observer provides a useful summary of what’s been learned recently about the abilities of the infant brain (surprising scientists but not mothers). The following passage is of particular interest to linguists:

Scientists used to think that babies couldn’t pick up the subtleties of speech sounds, and so took a long time to distinguish between, say, the r’s and l’s in English. But a landmark 1997 study by Patricia Kuhl showed that one-month-old American babies could distinguish ‘every English sound contrast we threw at them’. Then they found out that one-month-old babies exposed to Spanish and Kikuyu had the same facility, and that one-month-olds everywhere were good at distinguishing sounds, even if they were from languages they’d never heard. But they went on to discover that they lose this general capacity as their first year progresses and they become more attentive to the rhythms and patterns of their mother tongue.

This is a good and necessary thing. It is only by picking up on familiar cadences and sound combinations of their mother tongue that they begin to pick words out of the flow of other people’s speech.

The words they pick out go on to influence how they think. This is well illustrated in a 1995 study by Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Soonja Choi. Noting that the Korean language puts a greater emphasis on verbs while a sentence in English was not complete without a noun, they found the same patterns evident in the way Korean and American mothers talked to their infants and the way the babies developed their own vocabularies. And they also found that Korean-speaking children learnt ‘how to solve problems like using the rake to get the out-of-reach toy well before the English-speaking children’, while English-speakers started categorising objects earlier than the Korean speakers.

Sounds like it might provide support for a moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I also like this bit, which reinforces a lesson about the limitations of the male-scientist mindset:

[Cognitive scientists] also credit much of the new thinking to the entry of large numbers of women into the field over the past few decades. Until their arrival, the profession was dominated by men who did not think it necessary to test their theories on real children. Now it is a field in which much of the imaginative thinking comes from men and women who spend time with children, both in and outside the laboratory.

(A tip of the hat to Billy Blogs.)


  1. As someone who blurs his r’s and l’s (as a consequence of learning to speak Japanese), it’s interesting to me that the same research revealed Japanese babies can initially distinguish between r and l but lose that ability by the time they are six months old.

  2. Yeah, I find that fascinating too. (Also fascinating: Alison Gopnik is the sister of the wonderful New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, and apparently all Gopniks are related.)

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