From the Mouths of Babes and Birds

The New York Times:

Babies learn to speak months after they begin to understand language. As they are learning to talk, they babble, repeating the same syllable (“da-da-da”) or combining syllables into a string (“da-do-da-do”).

But when babies babble, what are they actually doing? And why does it take them so long to begin speaking?

Insights into these mysteries of human language acquisition are now coming from a surprising source: songbirds.

Researchers who focus on infant language and those who specialize in birdsong have teamed up in a new study suggesting that learning the transitions between syllables — from “da” to “do” and “do” to “da” — is the crucial bottleneck between babbling and speaking.

Dr. Tchernichovski and Gary Marcus, who studies infant language learning at New York University and who helped design the study, discussed the results. Could the difficulty learning transitions in songbirds hold true for human infants?

By analyzing an existing data set of recordings of infant babbling, they found that as babies introduce a new syllable into their repertory, they first tend to repeat it (“do-do-do”). Then, like the birds, they begin appending it to the beginning or end of syllable strings (“do-da-da” or “da-da-do”), eventually inserting it between other syllables (“da-do-da”).

As with the birds, learning the transitions between new syllables and old syllables is a painstaking process for babies. That could help explain why children continue to babble even as they begin to understand language, making the gap between comprehension and speech a little less mysterious.

“This result changes what we think kids are doing while babbling,” Dr. Marcus said.

Read the whole story: The New York Times

Leave a comment below and continue the conversation.

Comments

Leave a comment.

Comments go live after a short delay. Thank you for contributing.

(required)

(required)