Spotlight: Patricia Kuhl and Language Acquisition

Patricia Kuhl, part of the Department of Brain and Learning Sciences at University of Washington, has published several articles on language acquisition in children and brain plasticity. In her research of early language exposure in children, she and her associates found that babies under one year old can discriminate sounds  in every language, regardless of the child’s language of origin – not just the language spoken by their parents. But after the one-year mark, the child’s brain seems to begin preparation for speaking the language of their parent by blocking out sounds that are not from their native language and tuning  in more closely to the sounds of the native tongue. The baby’s brain is keeping statistics on the sounds produced by their native language in order to prepare for speaking it. That is so cool. The baby becomes, as Ms. Kuhl says, a ‘culture-bound listener.’

In her research Ms. Kuhl used magnetoencephalographic technology in order to watch the month-old test children’s brains as they were exposed to other native language speakers that spoke languages other than that of their parent. When the child was exposed to a real-life speaker over a period of time, the child showed the same level of understanding of that strange language as a child who grew up with that language. However, when the child was exposed to only audio or footage of someone speaking the language, the child showed no augmented recognition of the language, which means the child was recognizing a social situation and acquiring knowledge with the native speaker but not when they heard the native language alone. Language acquisition in children is based off of social cues! This was some amazingly interesting cognitive science research which I felt like I had to share.

If you get a chance to check out Ms. Kuhl’s work, she has also been featured on PBS and NOVA.

Read her TED biography here. Read her webpage at University of Washington here.

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