You may not have heard of Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., faculty member in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington and one of the world's leading authorities on language development, but if you have kept up on your research about children and language learning, you will have certainly come across her work. (Photo of the University of Washington is from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences homepage).
For example, you get what you give: When the craze for Baby Einstein DVDs came (and stayed) many of us were dismayed to see how many parents bought into the belief that all they had to do was to put their infant in front of a DVD program and magically he or she would gain the cognitive and language skills we so desired for them to have! Like an infant’s version of the movie “The Matrix”… plug in our baby and three hours later they will have downloaded what they need.
Luckily for humanity, this isn’t the case. It still takes direct human interaction for infants to learn our languages! We are still needed in the lives of our babies, at least when it comes to learning a language! Go ahead and put in that DVD but don’t walk away! Watch it with your infant and have some fun – you may even learn a thing or two and you will definitely be providing your infant with crucial social interaction while having fun at the same time!
In the first of two landmark studies, Dr. Kuhl and her team exposed 9-month-old infants to Mandarin Chinese “during a dozen 25-minutes sessions spaced out over four weeks. During these sessions, native Mandarin speakers read from children's books and played with toys while speaking Mandarin. Four different speakers, two men and two women, conducted the sessions, so the babies were exposed to a variety of speaking styles. A control group of infants was exposed to the same procedure in English.”
The infants from both groups (Mandarin exposure and English-only exposure) were then tested to determine their ability to distinguish between to two key Mandarin sounds which are not present in the English language which Americans often hear as “chee” or “she.”
In a second study, “The procedure was similar to the initial study except that half the infants were exposed to Mandarin by a DVD showing the same Mandarin speakers and materials on a 17-inch television. The other infants received their Mandarin exposure from an audio-only presentation of the DVD.”
There were multiple findings from these studies:
1. Even a few minutes of language learning each day can produce long lasting effects! “In fact, the performance of the American infants exposed to Mandarin for the first time between 9 and 10 months was statistically equivalent to infants in Taiwan who had listened to Mandarin for 10 months, according to Kuhl. The results show that the decline in foreign-language speech perception can be reversed with short-term exposure, she said.”
2. Social interaction is essential in language learning for infants at this age. To get the benefits of #1 above, it must be through social interaction. The infants who only had exposure to the DVDs or audiotapes had no phonetic learning and “scored at the same level as the English-only babies.” This means that you are essential in your infant learning your language, or any language for that matter. There is nothing that can replace you and others in providing your infant what he or she needs to pick up language!
3. Timing is important in language learning. At 9 months, infants are in a sensitive period in their language learning. And they are using all of their senses to do so. As Dr. Kuhl says, “language learning draws on all aspects of infants' cognitive abilities, including their attraction to 'motherese' (a form of exaggerated speech) spoken by adults to babies; the statistical learning that infants engage in by analyzing language; and the ability to follow the gaze of another person to an object to understand what they are talking about."
So, the next time you realize you have just spent a few hours cooing and talking and singing and reading out loud to your infant (or any age child for that matter) don’t feel guilty about not having done the dishes or the laundry or the shopping! Give yourself a big pat on the back for providing your child with the building blocks for a lifetime of language! All it takes is us being present and engaging with our kids.
Wow, who would have thought it was so easy!
For a report on this study and the link to the above quotes, go to: uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=2051