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Angelo Bertolli

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Does this mean that your "total language proficiency" is a zero sum game?

The idea that babies are taking "statistics" seems to imply that the brain is purposefully trying to differentiate between the useful sounds and the non-useful ones so it can ignore the non-useful ones in favor of the useful ones. So if for example you expose a baby to equal amounts of Japanese "r" and English "r/l" does the baby become better at both, or relatively worse at both due to there being no statistical difference in importance between the three?

Topics: brain language
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    Apr 1 2011: The statement that "brain is purposefully trying to differentiate between the useful sounds and the non-useful ones so it can ignore the non-useful ones in favor of the useful ones" implies that a baby's brain makes the decision between different sounds as useful or non-useful. You'd have to be exposed to two sounds and decide which is useful; however, it seems that, if you _are_ exposed to a sound, the brain is sensitized to it. The more exposure, the more changes occur in the brain that leave an imprint of sorts during the critical period.

    If that is the case, there is no differentiating between useful and non-useful sounds but, rather, a sensitization to possible sounds in the language.

    As for the second part of Bertolli's comment, the assumption is that a baby would be exposed to English and Japanese sounds without a social context. In other words, a baby is exposed to Japanese sounds when a speaker is speaking Japanese, so the sounds of the language are likely stored along with information about the context. The same happens with the repertoire of English sounds and so forth. That is probably why multilingual speakers switch back and forth between the phonetic and phonological repertoires of multiple languages without mixing them up.

    The speaker addresses only a small portion of a very complex process of language acquisition, which does not happen only during the critical period, nor does it involve only the acquisition of the sounds of the language. There is much more going on in the brain. In fact, toward the end of the talk, Dr. Kuhl mentions how exposure to a word not only lights up the auditory part of the brain but also triggers other parts of the brain--which are likely responsible for other lower- and higher-order processes involved in the acquisition of a language.
    • May 11 2011: I see what you mean, thanks. It is definitely not like just taking samples of "statistically competing sounds."
  • Feb 17 2011: From personal experience I can prove it's opposite of zero sum. Multiple languages increases phoneme resolution. A mono-lingual person has sound chart with wide rolling hills, while a polyglot has a comb of dense spikes. Increased resolution helps learn new languages later in life, as one is able to hear differences which one was not exposed to as a kid. Even after you've supposed to have fallen off the chart.

    Eg: I've learnt 2 completely different languages before age 10 - different sounds and grammar, completely unrelated words. Now, in my twenties, I'm learning a third - again, new sounds, unrelated words, inverted sentence composition etc. And the natives were surprised at how fast I got the basics.
    • May 11 2011: Agreed. As a teenager when I tried learning french (learning from croatian) it was mission impossible, 10 years later, after being fluent in english, with intermediate knowledge of german and latin, it became a different story - similarities with already learned languages emerged, both in vocabulary and grammar, making it easier to pick up bits from other languages. Not to mention that my friends are often surprised that I get the gist of it when they switch to spanish, even if I never studied the language.
      My children are bilingual to start with, and could understand the languages even before started to talk - it is amazing seeing how they don't think about what words to use, but instead respond depending on the social context. On the other hand, as they grow older, community influence prevails and, if not encouraged, they will go with the flow of the environment.
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    Feb 26 2011: My understanding is that after puberty (or near that) a seperate section of the brain does the learning of a new language and will have to go thru "translation" in the portion of the brain that learned the base language. I was not exposed to a second language until my teens and still have difficulty "hearing" foreign languages. My grandaughter, however has spoken 3 languages since age 2. She is now 8 and responds easily to other languages.
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    Feb 17 2011: Judging based on her graphs (the babies spoken to in mandarin were equally proficient to actual mandarin babies, not slightly less) and my experience with bilingual people, I would have to guess that no, it is not a zero sum game. It seems more like babies are capable of logging and fully learning a number of different languages based on the sounds that occur commonly in each.
  • Feb 21 2011: Rather than discussing language proficiency in the context of the 0-sum game paradigm, given that there are nearly 10,000 distinct spoken languages in the world (of varying usage and importance, with Papua New Guinea having 800), how do you expose a 0-4 year-old child to a sufficient amount of languages (phoneme and toneme spectra) given resource (time, available speakers, etc.) constraints? For example, if one were to limit the child to being exposed to 2 languages, perhaps Mandarin and American English is good enough; to 3 languages, add a slavic tongue to the mix. For an extreme example, if one were to try to expose the child to 5,000 spoken tongues, the child would be functionally deaf and mute at 4 years old due to the randomness of the sounds to which the child is exposed. In regard to later adult language proficiency as a function of early childhood exposure to multiple languages, are there any studies done concerning this?
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      Apr 1 2011: It is very unlikely that a child would be deaf and mute if exposed to an inordinate number of languages. In all likelihood, the child would favor one language over another based on social psychological factors-e.g., the language that gets the child attention from a consistent caretaker who would likely not speak to the child in all of 5,000 languages.